The group, 314 Action, plans to go after Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Mike DeWine of Ohio next, executive director Josh Morrow said in an interview with NBC News. Like DeSantis, both are up for re-election in 2022 and have faced criticism for their pandemic management.
The unique campaign involves text messages and digital media geotargeted to reach people who live, work and socialize near the governors and their donors. Mar-a-Lago, the South Florida resort where former President Donald Trump lives, is another target location.
Morrow said 314 Action — which advocates science-based public policy and supports Democratic candidates with backgrounds in science, engineering, math and technology — will initially spend “several million” dollars on the push. The effort could grow to target as many as 10 governors and eventually include TV and radio ads and direct mail.
The goal is to pressure donors to demand better policies or stop contributing.
“For a long time, these donors operated in the dark, in the shade,” Morrow said. “Let's shine a spotlight on them and let's make them accountable for DeSantis', or Abbott's or DeWine's policies. They can't just give the money, shake the hand, take the photo and go home.”
A preview of the group’s provocative messaging came last week when it launched its attacks on DeSantis and his donors, an effort first reported by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
“It’s a shame that L. Gale Lemerand has funded Governor Ron DeSantis’ deadly agenda,” reads a 314 Action text message that calls out a Florida businessman who has contributed more than $500,000 to DeSantis. “All the while over 42,000 Floridians have died because of DeSantis’ agenda and refusal to listen to the recommendations of public health officials.”
Helen Aguirre Ferré, a former DeSantis aide who serves as executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, defended the governor’s pandemic policies, asserting that he prioritized the vaccination of seniors and promoted monoclonal antibody treatments such as Regeneron.
One of DeSantis’ top donors, Ken Griffin, runs a hedge fund that has invested in Regeneron. The governor’s spokesperson has said that his support for the treatment is about “saving lives.”
“Florida is a hot topic these days, and Democrats are rightly worried about Gov. DeSantis’ popularity and success,” Aguirre Ferré, alluding to attacks on DeSantis, wrote in an email. “Even the White House focuses on Florida in an attempt to deflect from their many policy failings.”
By establishing himself as the face of the GOP’s resistance to mask mandates and other restrictions meant to limit the spread of Covid, DeSantis has emerged as one of the national party’s biggest stars not named Trump. Abbott, who already has Trump’s endorsement for a third term, has governed similarly in Texas, banning vaccination and mask mandates. Abbott also tested positive for Covid-19 last month despite being fully vaccinated.
“With Abbott, he's as terrible on Covid as DeSantis is,” Morrow said.
Abbott aides did not respond to a request for comment. Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, the political group responsible for electing and re-electing GOP governors, defended those being targeted by the 314 Action campaign.
“Republican governors struck a responsible, balanced approach to managing the pandemic, and their states have been quicker to recover as a result,” Hunt said before taking a shot at California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who faces a recall election this month. “Democrats being forced to protect a deep blue state governor in a recall tells you everything you need to know about how voters are responding to Democrat governors’ pandemic policies.”
DeWine has had more of a nuanced record on the pandemic, and Morrow acknowledges that the Ohio governor is “definitely not DeSantis, but he has been very waffly.” In the early days of the coronavirus, DeWine earned bipartisan praise for following the science and acting decisively, being among the first governors in the country to order school and business closings.
But DeWine began hearing loud criticism on the right, including from at least two Republicans who plan to challenge him in next year’s gubernatorial primary. Meanwhile, one of the Democratic candidates for governor — Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, whom 314 Action has endorsed — has called on DeWine to mandate masks in schools as the academic year begins.
"Governor DeWine's bold leadership has helped to save lives and livelihoods during the pandemic,” DeWine campaign manager Brenton Temple countered. “He led the charge to get children back into schools safely, and has used the bully pulpit to encourage Ohioans to get the vaccine that was made possible by President Trump's leadership. This is nothing more than an example of 314 Action carelessly wasting their resources."