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'I think he's in trouble': Growing number of Ron DeSantis donors and allies hope for a shake-up

As he gets ready to jump into the 2024 presidential race, the Florida governor is sticking with his strategy of putting culture wars front and center.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Miami on Jan. 26, 2023.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Miami on Jan. 26, 2023.Marta Lavandier / AP file

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to jump into the presidential race, a growing number of supporters say he is sorely in need of a change in strategy if he’s to have any chance of defeating Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. 

They point to his drop in the polls, his lack of outreach to potential supporters who have instead backed Trump and the policy issues he has focused on. He’s spending his time battling one of the largest employers in the state, moving to the right on abortion and cleaning up verbal missteps on the war in Ukraine

But inside DeSantis world, there’s no plan for a course correction on messaging or a broad strategy that puts culture wars front and center. 

That confidence may best be highlighted by DeSantis' doubling down on his fight with Walt Disney World, a politically powerful company that had long been allied with Republicans in the state. More broadly, though, DeSantis’ insistence on centering his political identity as the governor most eager to wage a range of culture war fights has some supporters concerned — and a handful of large donors turned off.

Interviews with more than a dozen donors, elected officials and people close to his organization reveal that, while not a universal perspective, there is a frustrated contingent of Republicans who were open or excited about a DeSantis candidacy but fear the door is closing — in large part because of recent policy decisions — and who see no change in strategy from DeSantis. Many of them spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly. 

“I think he’s in trouble,” said Ron Gidwitz, a major GOP fundraiser who served as the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s finance chair and was a Trump-era ambassador but is undecided for 2024. “There’s a lot of people that are concerned about DeSantis — and Trump for that matter. They’d like to have an alternative to Trump that can win. But is DeSantis the person?”

“Some of the stuff that he’s been doing recently doesn’t sit all that terribly well with donors,” he said, adding, “This craziness with Walt Disney — I mean, how do you get into a fight with Mickey Mouse?” 

A person with knowledge of the DeSantis operations described struggles in mastering interpersonal skills, building up an operation and focusing on effective policy messages. 

Complaints are streaming in from donors who feel brushed off by DeSantis or left in the lurch after they are asked to assemble a fundraising event but then never hear back from someone in his circle. Trump is proving to be far more adept at winning early endorsements with his personal touch, wooing them with calls and personal meetings. 

“They’re pushing back the ocean with a broom” that person with knowledge said of the DeSantis team. “People want to feel valued and appreciated. There’s none of that emotion there.” 

Some of the organizational problems may work themselves out once DeSantis launches a campaign. Right now, for example, there’s a struggle to nail down hires, but that should get easier next month when there is a formal operation. 

“Many people see the bad news that is swirling around the campaign and get the sense there should be a course correction,” said a veteran Florida political operative who supports DeSantis running for president. “There seems to be a disconnect with the inner circle where they think everyone is fine, and in the end it’s not.”

Some of DeSantis’ backers are encouraging him to launch his exploratory committee as soon as May 11, so that he can start building up his infrastructure quicker, while others in his orbit say that is too soon. 

DeSantis’ policy problems began last month, when he said that Ukraine was not a “vital” national interest and that the war there was simply a “territorial dispute.” He later changed his tune after criticism from members of his own party. 

More recently, DeSantis quietly signed a six-week abortion ban into law, even though many Republicans believe moving so far to the right on the issue has hurt the party. 

Billionaire GOP donor Thomas Peterffy told the Financial Times this month that he was putting his backing of DeSantis “on hold” because of his policies on abortion and book bans, then wrote a $1 million check to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is being talked about for a 2024 presidential run. 

Ken Griffin, a Republican megadonor who gave DeSantis’ state-level political committee $10 million, is also considering shifting support in the 2024 Republican primary after DeSantis’ statement on Ukraine and his signing the abortion ban, The New York Times reported Tuesday. A source with knowledge of Griffin’s thinking confirmed to NBC News that he was re-evaluating his support and expressed concerns over those two issues. Griffin has been one of DeSantis’ biggest donors over his two terms as Florida governor.  

GOP donor and Never Trumper Bill Kunkler said he was desperately looking for an alternative to Trump, but DeSantis’ actions on immigration — including a move to fly migrants to Martha Vineyard — soured him on the governor.

“I would vote for him over Joe Biden, but I’ve worked for nine years on immigration reform — he’s pretty despicable on that subject,” said Kunkler, executive vice president of CC Industries, who has now turned to No Labels, a group aimed at supporting a third- party candidate, to seek an alternative.   

In the absence of a campaign, the super PAC Never Back Down has been providing air cover, resources and political backup for DeSantis. It has already raised $30 million, which the group holds up as a clear sign of DeSantis’ grassroots appeal. Never Back Down pushed back on the contention that DeSantis needs to change gears when he isn’t even a presidential contender — yet. 

“I just reject the premise that there needs to be anything other than what the governor is doing, which is what he said he would do, which is end the legislative session and then make considerations after that,” said Erin Perrine, spokeswoman for the super PAC. “Everything else is D.C. noise because what we’re seeing on the ground — that grassroots movement — it’s not reflected.” 

The group has hired organizers in the four early states, sent out mailers and is airing television ads. It’s looking to grow more granular and recruit DeSantis supporters in those states on the county level, according to a source with Never Back Down. It also is aggressively pushing back on social media attacks from Trump and beyond.

Jeff Boeyink, a onetime chief of staff and campaign aide to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, said he is organizing for DeSantis on the ground in Iowa, including talking to state legislators and others “who are ready to jump on board” the DeSantis campaign as soon as he launches. 

“I’m getting a lot of enthusiasm, there’s a lot of anxiousness, waiting for him to announce,” Boeyink said. “Iowa is ripe — there’s a lot of interest in an alternative to President Trump.” 

Supporters of the double-down strategy say it’s smart not to deviate from the blueprint that helped build DeSantis’ national rise. They see the early aggression from Trump as a school yard bully-type tactic from someone who is afraid to get punched in the nose when DeSantis becomes a formal candidate. 

“Trump’s plan is to kill Ron’s chances before he gets in,” said a Republican state lawmaker who supports DeSantis and requested anonymity to speak freely about political strategy. “It is not working.”

There is also a confidence among DeSantis’ backers in his internal political radar, which in large part helped him defy political gravity in 2018 when he beat Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who was supported by the entire GOP establishment in that year’s primary for governor. 

“In 2018, the entire political apparatus was telling the world the reasons DeSantis couldn’t beat Adam Putnam,” said a veteran Florida lobbyist who supports DeSantis running for president. “DeSantis was undeterred by the noise then, and he’s just going to be undeterred now. He has a plan, and he’s going to continue to work that plan.”

“For all the criticism people can make of him, they have yet to point to an example when his political acumen has been wrong,” the person added. “From his first election until now, he has been told reasons he cannot win, and each time he has found a way to get it done.” 

To date, much of the DeSantis plan has been to focus on the culture war issues that have fueled his rise. 

He has gained an intense national conservative following by stacking Florida’s administrative bureaucracy with appointees opposed to things like gender-affirming care for transgender minors and Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Programs, and he has directed his education department to review books in school libraries that opponents have framed as “book bans.” 

DeSantis’ most high-profile fight has been a yearlong battle with the Walt Disney Co. that gives the clearest example that he’s not going to take a different tack despite the criticism. 

The governor’s feud started after the politically powerful company issued a statement in March 2022 opposing DeSantis-backed legislation that banned the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms up until third grade. Opponents branded that proposal “Don’t Say Gay,” and said it would have a detrimental impact on LGBTQ students.

The Disney fight has escalated in recent months after DeSantis convinced a GOP-dominated Legislature to pass a bill allowing him to appoint members to a board that runs a special governing district overseeing Disney operations. That board’s recent actions, including trying to nullify an agreement the old board had with the company, prompted Disney to file a federal lawsuit that has further intensified the feud.

DeSantis continues to lean into the issue and dismissed Disney’s suit as “political” this week. 

What made DeSantis appealing to a number of Republicans is that he seemed like a conservative who could get through a general election and appeal to a broader swath of voters than Trump. But Gidwitz worries that with a “dealbreaker” like the six-week abortion ban, DeSantis is pursuing a losing path. 

“We lost congressional seats over Roe v. Wade” in 2022, Gidwitz said of the Supreme Court overturning the landmark abortion case. “Politics is a game of addition, not subtraction. … We don’t need to alienate both pro-choice Republican women or libertarian Republican women who would like to not have the government make that decision for them.”