Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is notorious for running a top-down operation, consulting on key matters with only a small, select group, including his wife.
But as he tries to launch a presidential campaign amid weeks of bad headlines, flagging poll numbers and donors’ threatening to jump ship, his campaign-in-waiting is acknowledging that the closed-off practice isn’t working so well.
Behind the scenes, aides are reassuring supporters that DeSantis’ circle of advisers is expanding to add more operatives with presidential campaign experience — and that DeSantis is listening to them, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.
“Before, people would make suggestions, but he’d still call the shots,” said a Republican donor who was briefed by a DeSantis adviser on next steps. “He’s beginning to take advice from people who know what they’re doing.” That was essential, this person said, “particularly after he got beat up so badly after Ukraine.”
Aside from loosening his tight-knit circle, Team DeSantis is taking special care to court donors, inviting bundlers to the Four Seasons in Miami next week for a retreat aimed at pumping up his campaign war chest for his official launch. Some donors had complained of a lack of communication from DeSantis.
In addition, DeSantis is ramping up his retail stops; at a congressman’s fundraising picnic in Iowa over the weekend, he even posed for a photo-op for the media, with whom he frequently spars. DeSantis’ team has shown a small shift in dealing with the media, opening up its soon-to-be political operation to a Politico reporter — giving far more access than aides have typically granted.
And DeSantis has taken a series of headline-grabbing steps as governor recently, including sending Florida law enforcement and the National Guard to the Texas border.
DeSantis' spokesperson didn’t reply to a request for comment.
DeSantis could be days away from presidential bid announcementMay 15, 202301:54
Inside DeSantis’ team, aides feel this past week was one of the best it has had, punctuated by a surprise stop in Des Moines, Iowa, after former President Donald Trump canceled a rally there hours earlier because of weather, two people with knowledge of internal discussions said. The organization is working to keep the momentum going, and it is expected to unroll new endorsements between now and his official launch.
Another Republican familiar with recent internal conversations said Michael Biundo, the national campaign manager for Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential bid and a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, has had discussions about joining the DeSantis team. Sources didn’t describe how formally or informally new advisers would work with DeSantis.
DeSantis’ core political team in Tallahassee has been growing, and this week, aides moved to new office space. But the lion’s share of the work to promote him as a White House contender has fallen to Never Back Down, a super PAC heavy on advisers to Sen. Ted Cruz’s unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Adding others to the mix could address the challenges DeSantis has encountered as an undeclared but widely anticipated candidate. It could, however, build tension down the road with newcomers potentially clashing with a tight-knit inner circle.
“What supporters of the governor have consistently seen with DeSantis world is what happens when you don’t officially enter a race and have a campaign committee,” said Dennis Lennox, a Michigan-based Republican strategist who has been publicly supportive of DeSantis.
“At the end of the day, this is still a campaign dominated by a lot of intraparty machinations, and you need a team that knows how to win a nomination ultimately decided by delegates,” Lennox said. “Dealing with a state legislature to get your agenda through is totally different than simple things like qualifying for the ballot in all 56 primaries, caucuses and convention — some of which have peculiar filing requirements.”
One donor said some tension has arisen over Casey DeSantis’ outsize influence over her husband. A former TV news anchor, she has accompanied DeSantis on his early travels beyond Florida, at times conducting friendly interviews with him onstage at events.
“I know people in DeSantis’ world that are very frustrated with her,” the donor said. “I think his chance of being president, he’s going to have to listen to his wife a little bit less and the professionals a little bit more.”
The attempt to thaw the open perception that DeSantis can be a bit awkward at times — and the expansion of his famously small and loyal political orbit — are two final touches as his campaign prepares the details for a presidential launch likely to come as early as next week.
Team DeSantis is paying special attention to donors in advance of a donor retreat in Miami next week, which will help the new campaign make sure it's able to tout a huge early fundraising number. And more details about the meeting are coming into view.
“I think he’s really making an effort to broaden his circle,” said a bundler who was invited to Miami and had conversations with DeSantis aides.
Another Republican donor, who has spoken with DeSantis’ team about the next steps and will be at the campaign’s donor confab, said his staff has been sending signals to appease some uneasy supporters. It’s letting donors know that a broadening crop of advisers is working to iron out concerns about policy positions, shift momentum in DeSantis’ direction and finesse a prickly — and at times standoffish — personality to the demands of a national campaign.
“A lot of people think they are insular, and there were, for sure, choppy months,” a donor who firmly supports DeSantis’ bid and will be at the Miami event said of DeSantis’ political team. “They get that he had a lot of momentum coming out of October, but they needed to get their sea legs to make sure the donor class is less nervous.”
DeSantis remains Trump's strongest competitor for the GOP nomination in 2024, according to polls. But his pre-launch period has been riddled with moves that have raised questions about how prepared he is for a slugfest with Trump and other GOP candidates, a list that is expected to grow in the coming days.
Aside from his waffling on U.S. involvement in Ukraine, DeSantis has struggled with questions about Trump — reluctant to attack him directly but at times unable to resist not-so-subtle rebukes. A majority of Florida’s U.S. House delegation, of which DeSantis was once a member, have endorsed Trump. And Never Back Down’s efforts to corral endorsements for DeSantis generated confusion this week when two New Hampshire state legislators whom the super PAC listed as supporters said they still back Trump.
The Miami event, which will gather 50 to 100 bundlers and donors at the Four Seasons hotel on the city’s famed downtown Brickell Avenue, is set to be a collection of high-end GOP fundraisers who have pledged to both help DeSantis’ campaign and make sure his early number pops. Never Back Down has been raising tens of millions of dollars, but making sure his official campaign side can broadcast a huge early campaign cash haul will be an important signal to sustain momentum after he officially launches his campaign.
“They are assembling a team, basically what will kind of be his finance team,” said a Republican consultant familiar with the event. “They are going to start making calls. It’s not totally clear who is going to be there yet. The invite versus those who will show up is still in the air.”
Three sources familiar with the event confirmed that the event will be to raise “hard money,” or money that goes directly into DeSantis’ official presidential campaign, not the aligned super PAC. That’s an important designation, because it means that when the May 24 finance event in Miami begins, the presidential campaign will need to legally exist.
One source said the campaign is explaining the event to people as “combo” donor briefing and fundraising push.
Said one of the Republican bundlers who will be in attendance, “They can’t have us dialing for dollars if there is no campaign yet.”