Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) needs a massive infusion of cash in the next two months of the Republican presidential primary race to help him beat Donald Trump, according to pleas to donors from a pro-DeSantis super PAC.
In a private meeting with donors last month in Milwaukee, just before the first Republican presidential primary debate, the head of Never Back Down told donors that the super PAC needed $50 million by the end of the year and $100 million more by the end of March.
“I’m not worried about the second 50. We need the first 50,” said the PAC’s chief executive, Chris Jankowski, according to audio of the event obtained by The Washington Post. Portions of the audio were first reported by CNN.
In a roughly 90-minute pitch, Jankowski and other Never Back Down officials laid out their strategy for the coming months of the campaign, emphasizing that they planned to spend aggressively in the short term to separate DeSantis from the large field of GOP candidates challenging Trump, who continues to dominate the polls.
Here are some key takeaways from the DeSantis super PAC’s pitch to donors.
Never Back Down chief strategist Jeff Roe emphasized to the crowd that it was imperative DeSantis start to overtake Trump in the next 60 days — roughly by the end of October. The Florida governor has struggled to gain momentum against the former president since he launched his campaign in May.
“Nothing that happens in August matters,” Roe said, waving off the Iowa State Fair and other major campaign events that took place over the summer. “The day after Labor Day we’re launching, and we need your help to stay up and go hard the rest of the way. We need 50 million bucks.”
Roe joked that the donors in the room looked like people who enjoyed going to Las Vegas and then proposed a bet: Invest heavily in DeSantis now and their money would pay off later.
“This is not a dispute. We have to beat [Trump], and we’ve got to beat him in the next 60 days, and we gotta beat everybody else nipping at our heels now, and we got to separate further now,” Roe said. “So we need more money now. … The difference between winning and losing is your money. We’re going to go get it done.”
Roe also detailed the campaign’s emphasis on early nominating states Iowa and New Hampshire, where he insisted DeSantis had a strong advantage over Trump.
“Iowa is a good state for [DeSantis] because there’s education … because of income, because of Bible reading,” Roe said. “New Hampshire is a terrible state for Donald Trump. That’s a terrible state.”
But to accomplish everything they want in Iowa, Roe said, the super PAC needed to spend $5 million a month in the state building their field operations.
“This doesn’t run on fumes, and so we’re going to go spend this money right now betting that our donors won’t let us down,” he said.
Never Back Down officials and at least one donor in the room lamented media coverage of DeSantis, noting that Trump receives far more coverage — positive or negative — compared to any other Republican candidate, even if some of the recent “spikes” for Trump were related to his indictments in various criminal cases.
“Donald Trump probably gets roughly at least $30 million of earned media every single day,” said Kristin Davison, the chief operations officer of Never Back Down, using a phrase that refers to news coverage the campaign does not pay for. She later accused news outlets of covering Trump “just because the media wants him to be the nominee like no other.”
“We’re number two with roughly $5 to $6 million every single day. Where you see the spikes [for Trump] are after every indictment,” Davison continued. “It goes on to $100 million of earned media. And in a presidential race, no news is bad news.”
Never Back Down tracks earned media obsessively, and its internal polls have shown that it’s the primary driver of voter opinion of both Trump and DeSantis in New Hampshire.
Wednesday was only the second day since DeSantis’s campaign launch where the Florida governor “won” in terms of earned media over Trump. That was because Hurricane Idalia made landfall in his state, according to a person familiar with the numbers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private data.
Last week, Never Back Down announced it would be spending $25 million on ads in Iowa and New Hampshire between Labor Day and Halloween, half of the $50 million amount its officials had told donors it would need in the next two months.
During his pitch to donors, Roe referred to several of DeSantis’s GOP primary rivals and summarized their perceived shortcomings. Most of the other candidates, he said, had “a name ID problem.”
Both Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley did not have a name ID problem but instead had a “not-being-viewed-presidential problem,” Roe said.
Roe’s assessment of entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, a political newcomer, was more complicated. In one moment, Roe dismissed Ramaswamy and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) as amateur candidates who were “playing in the sandbox.”
But that could change depending on Ramaswamy’s performance on the debate stage, Roe said.
“If Vivek has a big night, then we gotta watch him,” Roe said. “He will not go through the discovery, scrutiny and decline phase in presidential politics very well. We’re putting him through it right now … that’ll get worse for him. But if he has a big moment, that’s not great for us short term.”
Ramaswamy later faced a significant number of attacks in the first GOP primary debate.
Near the opening of his remarks at the fundraiser, Jankowski, the Never Back Down CEO, declared that “Ron and Casey DeSantis are the folks for the moment to change the direction of our country.” It was an unusually strong emphasis on the spouse of a presidential candidate during a pitch to donors, but it was not the first time the DeSantis campaign has intentionally placed the governor’s wife in the spotlight.
Later, Roe cited a poll that identified 37 percent of the Republican electorate who “like Trump but want something new” and suggested that Casey DeSantis would continue to play an outsize role in her husband’s campaign.
“These folks, we’ve got to give them what they need, which is common sense, which is durability and stability and leadership, vision, optics, family, Casey,” he said. “So we’re going to give them what they want. We’re going to give them what they need.”
Never Back Down has already been playing an unusually significant role in funding most of DeSantis’s campaign business. Whereas campaigns are limited to raising no more than $3,300 from individuals for the primary race, super PACs have no such restrictions.
However, the downside is that this setup has created a terrible information security environment: Federal law prohibits super PACs from coordinating with political campaigns on spending and messaging, so the PACs have typically worked around such rules by publicly posting memos containing research and strategy.
Last month, memos that laid out debate advice for DeSantis were picked up by media outlets after they were posted to the website of Axiom Strategies, a firm owned by Roe. The documents included a load of information that was quickly ridiculed by some other candidates, including guidance for DeSantis to defend Trump, to pivot to attacking President Biden and the media at least three times, and to show emotion when telling an anecdote about his family.
Reliance on a super PAC for funding also means depending on a pool of high-dollar donors who appear to keep leaking internal discussions — including the audio of the August fundraiser in Milwaukee. That happened despite Roe’s request that his remarks stay private.
“Now let me tell you a secret,” Roe told the crowd before launching into Never Back Down’s strategy. “Don’t leak this.”