TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign is planning a reboot, top campaign officials said, with a significant shift on messaging, events and media strategy.
Expect fewer big speeches and more handshaking in diners and churches.
There will be more of a national focus than constant Florida references.
And the mainstream media may start to get more access.
In short, DeSantis will be running as an insurgent candidate rather than as an incumbent governor.
“Ron DeSantis has never been the favorite or the darling of the establishment, and he has won because of it every time. No one in this race has been under fire more and won than Gov. DeSantis. He’s ready to prove them wrong again. Buckle up,” DeSantis campaign manager Generra Peck said in a statement to NBC News.
Campaign filings show that the DeSantis campaign needs to figure out how to bring in more money and spend less. It fired roughly a dozen staffers last week. Donors and allies are pressing for a change. The poll numbers are stagnant. And rival GOP presidential candidates are smelling blood in the water.
“Downright low” is how a source who was present when the staffers were fired described morale these days.
“The entire campaign is on the brink,” the person said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The reboot is notable for a candidate who was perhaps the most widely expected GOP entrant in the 2024 race. While DeSantis has maintained his second-ranking place in the polls, he has been unable to close the gap with the front-runner, former President Donald Trump.
But the hurdles remain significant, and it’s unclear whether it’s too late to reverse early stumbles. While some candidates have successfully shifted after tough starts, the presidential campaign trail is littered with candidates who ultimately failed to regain momentum.
Leaner, more intimate campaign events
DeSantis’ campaign finance report flashed some bright warning signs.
Although he raised more than $20 million from mid-May to the end of June — more than any other GOP presidential candidate — more than two-thirds of that money came from donors who gave the legal limit and can’t donate again. He also spent about 40% of what he raised, with 92 people on the payroll.
Other candidates — including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and even Trump — all had higher spending rates than DeSantis. But with less cash in the bank ($12.2 million to Trump’s $22.5 million) and the high number of maxed-out donors, solvency became a real question.
The full extent of the campaign’s dire financial picture became clear to the broader team only after the June 30 end-of-quarter reporting deadline, said two sources familiar with the situation, who asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to share information on behalf of the campaign.
The campaign postponed paying some of its outstanding bills until after the end of June, in part so its second-quarter financial report would show more money in the bank, the sources said. It’s not an uncommon practice for campaigns running up against big reporting deadlines, but it can obscure larger issues.
Top DeSantis aides acknowledge that the money situation has to be addressed. They plan to do it in part by cutting costs for his events.
DeSantis won’t travel less, but his campaign appearances will begin to be leaner and more intimate.
This week’s stop in Tega Cay, South Carolina, served as a starting point — he held a town hall-style event with a noticeably pared-down security presence. According to figures provided by the campaign, the event cost $940 but brought in $1,600 in organic donations from attendees.
Going forward, expect fewer podiums and stages and more stops at Pizza Ranches, churches and VFW halls where DeSantis can speak directly to voters with no big platforms or barricades blocking close contact.
“All DeSantis needs to drive news and win this primary is a mic and a crowd,” Peck said.
The campaign will also rely more heavily on “special guest” invitations from outside organizations to cut down on its own event costs, particularly ones run by its bigger-pocketed counterparts at the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down.
New communications strategy
DeSantis will also tweak his message. Until now, much of his pitch to voters has been centered on his accomplishments in Florida. But he will soon switch to a more national outlook, top campaign officials said.
The candidate already known for being a culture warrior will lean into an “us against the world" message in the effort to emerge as the insurgent fighter. The campaign intends to wear the negative headlines as a badge of honor.
“Gov. DeSantis’ public service has been defined by being the underdog. Every time he has been underestimated, written off, or dismissed, he has proven his enemies wrong — from winning a stunning upset in his first congressional race, to beating Tallahassee insider Adam Putnam in 2018, to bucking the entrenched bureaucracy on COVID,” Peck said.
At the same time, the campaign is opening up to what it has long called “corporate media” after months of having largely limited his engagement with reporters to conservative outlets. DeSantis took questions from NBC News about immigration issues in June, and he sat down with CNN this week.
The campaign said more interviews with national media will be coming, along with more media gaggles and greater media access overall to the candidate while he’s on the trail.
They’re dubbing it the “DeSantis Is Everywhere” approach, and they’re bringing on a new hire and solidifying the communications team to help execute it. Cody Hall is joining the campaign as a senior communications adviser. He will remain a top political adviser to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, having also served as communications director after he worked on his 2018 campaign for governor. Campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo is stepping into the communications director role, and Bryan Griffin will continue as press secretary.
The DeSantis campaign has already laid off roughly a dozen people, NBC News reported. Campaign officials said that, as of now, they don’t plan any more budget-related layoffs.
The layoffs shook the campaign. The source in the room that day said a lawyer and senior staff member — not Peck — went around the office and dryly notified employees they were being let go, thanking them for their service and telling them they needed to leave by 2 p.m. that day. The fired staffers were told someone would follow up with them in the coming days.
The first GOP primary debate on Aug. 23 will be a key test for DeSantis, who will be the top-polling figure on the stage if Trump stays away, as he has indicated he will. The campaign plans to ramp up talk about DeSantis’ biography in the coming weeks, with a focus on the economy and foreign policy as leading issues.
“The elites have already picked their candidates — Joe Biden and Donald Trump — but the American people want a fighter who is not a creature of Washington and isn’t afraid to stand up and take our country back,” a source familiar with the campaign’s thinking said.