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Monday, July 24, 2023

DeSantis Campaign Faces a Reboot and a Reckoning - The New York Times

A ‘Leaner-Meaner’ DeSantis Campaign Faces a Reboot and a Reckoning

"The campaign’s missteps and swelling costs have made donors and allies anxious. One person close to the Florida governor said he had experienced a “challenging learning curve.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking onstage and pointing with his right hand.
Supporters of Gov. Ron DeSantis have watched anxiously as former President Donald J. Trump has outmaneuvered him in defining the contours of the race.Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Throughout the spring, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and his advisers waved off his sagging poll numbers with the simple fact that he wasn’t yet an actual candidate for president.

Two months in, however, his sputtering presidential campaign is still struggling to gain traction.

Allies are complaining about a lack of a coherent message about why Republican voters should choose Mr. DeSantis over former President Donald J. Trump. Early strategic fissures have emerged between his own political team and the enormous super PAC that will spend tens of millions of dollars to help him. His Tallahassee-based campaign has begun shedding some of the more than 90 workers it had hired — roughly double the Trump campaign payroll — to cut swelling costs that have included $279,000 at the Four Seasons in Miami.

Now, his advisers are promising to reorient the DeSantis candidacy as an “insurgent” run and remake it into a “leaner-meaner” operation, days after the first public glimpse into his political finances showed unsustainable levels of spending — including a taste for private planes — and a fund-raising operation that was alarmingly dependent on its biggest contributors and that did not meet its expectations.

One recent move that drew intense blowback, including from Republicans, was the campaign’s sharing of a bizarre video on Twitter that attacked Mr. Trump as too friendly to L.G.B.T.Q. people and showed Mr. DeSantis with lasers coming out of his eyes. The video drew a range of denunciations, with some calling it homophobicand others homoerotic before it was deleted.

But it turns out to be more of a self-inflicted wound than was previously known: A DeSantis campaign aide had originally produced the video internally, passing it off to an outside supporter to post it first and making it appear as if it was generated independently, according to a person with knowledge of the incident.

Mr. DeSantis has privately forecast that the now twice-indicted Mr. Trump would struggle as his legal troubles mounted, but the governor continues to poll in a distant second place nationally.Rachel Mummey for The New York Times

The DeSantis campaign declined to comment on specific questions about its spending, the candidate’s travel and the video. The communications director, Andrew Romeo, said in a statement that Mr. DeSantis was “ready to prove the doubters wrong again and our campaign is prepared to execute on his vision for the Great American Comeback.”

“The media and D.C. elites have already picked their candidates — Joe Biden and Donald Trump,” Mr. Romeo said. “Ron DeSantis has never been the favorite or the darling of the establishment, and he has won because of it every time.”

Second-guessing from political donors has intensified as Mr. DeSantis traveled this week from the Hamptons to Park City, Utah, to see donors. Records show the DeSantis campaign made an $87,000 reservation at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Utah for a retreat where donors were invited to cocktails on the deck on Saturday followed by an “investor appreciation dinner.” It’s the type of luxury location that helps explain how a candidate who has long preferred to fly by private jets burned through nearly 40 percent of every dollar he raised in his first six weeks without airing a single television ad.

One senior DeSantis adviser who was supposed to oversee the campaign’s messaging on television recently departed, as the reality of a disappearing advertising budget set in. Now the governor is expected to hold smaller-scale events in early states while outsourcing some event planning to outside groups to tamp down costs. His team, for the second time in three months, is telegraphing a plan to engage more with the mainstream media he has long derided, calling it the “DeSantis is everywhere” approach.

DeSantis supporters have watched anxiously as Mr. Trump has swamped the governor in coverage and outmaneuvered him in defining the contours of the race. Since his entry, Mr. DeSantis has received zero congressional endorsements. One person close to Mr. DeSantis, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a candidate whom the person still supports, said the governor had experienced a “challenging learning curve” that has left him “a little bit jarred.”

In a note to donors on Thursday, Generra Peck, the DeSantis campaign manager, cast the campaign as making tough but necessary changes, writing that it would pursue an “underdog” approach going forward.

“All DeSantis needs to drive news and win this primary is a mic and a crowd,” Ms. Peck wrote.

Mr. DeSantis has privately forecast that the now twice-indicted Mr. Trump would struggle as his legal troubles mounted, but the governor continues to poll in a distant second place nationally.

Ms. Peck, who has never worked at a senior level on a presidential campaign but made herself a trusted confidante of Mr. DeSantis and his wife, Casey, has found herself under fire from both inside and outside a campaign that has been defined by silos, with various departments unaware of what is happening elsewhere. That the campaign did not hit expected fund-raising targets — and spent exorbitantly — caught the candidate and his wife by surprise, a person with knowledge of their reactions said.

Mr. DeSantis still has time to reset. There have been no debates yet. His super PAC, which is called Never Back Down, brought in $130 million. And the first votes are nearly six months away in Iowa, where Mr. Trump has made missteps of his own.

“Six months is a lifetime in politics,” said Terry Sullivan, who served as Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign manager, noting that in July 2015 Jeb Bush was still ahead in some polling averages. “He has definitely burned a lot of time, but it’s been a learning process for his campaign.”

Mr. DeSantis remains the only challenger to Mr. Trump polling in the double digits, and the only candidate that Mr. Trump himself treats as a serious threat.

“What would concern me is if I woke up one day and Trump and his team were not attacking Never Back Down and Ron DeSantis,” said Chris Jankowski, the DeSantis super PAC’s chief executive. “That would be concerning. Other than that, we’ve got them right where we want them.”

Two developments — the campaign’s failure to hit expected fund-raising targets and its exorbitant spending — caught Mr. DeSantis and his wife, Casey, by surprise, a person with knowledge of their reactions said.Kathryn Gamble for The New York Times

A memo that hints at a split

Still, time is ticking. From the start, Mr. DeSantis has been trapped between the political reality that he is an underdog compared with the former president and the desire to project himself as a fellow front-runner separated from the rest of the G.O.P. pack.

Mr. DeSantis himself acknowledged in a recent interview with Fox News that his earlier higher standing was only a “sugar high” from his landslide re-election and how that victory contrasted with the 2022 losses of several Trump-backed candidates.

But the campaign has increasingly been tempted to punch down at lower-polling rivals, as in a memo to donors in early July that singled out Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina as someone who would soon receive “appropriate scrutiny.”

That campaign memo landed at the pro-DeSantis super PAC’s Atlanta headquarters with a thud. It seemed to rebuke the super PAC, calling into question the group’s decision to stay off the airwaves in New Hampshire and the pricey Boston market. Legally, super PACs and campaigns cannot coordinate strategy in private, so leaked memos are one way they communicate.

“We will not cede New Hampshire,” read one line that appeared in boldface for extra emphasis. In a reference to Boston, the memo read, “We see no reason why more expensive markets in New Hampshire should not also be prioritized.”

But the super PAC, which has studied the memo line by line, may be unmoved by the suggestions. “We’re not easily going to change our course,” said one senior official with the DeSantis super PAC who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about strategic decisions.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the process, the memo, first published by NBC News, was written by Ms. Peck, but without the input or knowledge of the broader campaign leadership team, an unusual move for such a highly scrutinized document.

The candidate himself soon made clear that he, too, wanted to see changes.

“I can’t control” the super PAC, Mr. DeSantis said recently on Fox News, before adding some specific stage directions. “I imagine they’re going to start lighting up the airwaves pretty soon with a lot of good stuff about me, and that’s going to give us a great lift,” he said.

Since then, the super PAC has not aired a positive ad about Mr. DeSantis or returned to the airwaves in New Hampshire.

‘He brought over almost his entire state apparatus’

From the moment Mr. DeSantis entered the race with a two-day event at the ritzy Four Seasons in Miami, his team operated on the false premise that he could campaign the same way he did as governor, when Florida’s lax campaign finance rules allowed him to collect million-dollar donations and borrow the private planes of friends at will.

Mr. DeSantis raised a robust $20 million in less than six weeks. But $3 million of that is earmarked for a general election and cannot be spent now, and his spending rate averaged more than $212,000 per day.

The state of the campaign’s finances could be even more bleak than the snapshot presented in public filings. Some vendors did not show up on the report at all, suggesting some bills have been delayed, which would make the books look rosier.

There were also signs of a severe slowdown in his online donations. In Mr. DeSantis’s first week as a candidate, in late May, his campaign paid significantly more in fees to WinRed, the main donation-processing platform for Republicans that receives a cut of every online dollar donated, than it did in the entire month of June.

In addition to the roughly 10 staff members who were let go in mid-July, two more senior advisers, Dave Abrams and Tucker Obenshain, left this month to work for an outside nonprofit that can boost Mr. DeSantis.

“He brought over almost his entire state apparatus, and I think they looked at it and said we don’t need all of those people,” said Hal Lambert, a Republican donor who is raising money for the DeSantis campaign.

The disclosures also exposed Mr. DeSantis’s dependence on his biggest contributors. Only 15 percent of his contributions came from donors who gave less than $200. Even more stark is that the lion’s share of his money came from donors who gave the legal maximum in the primary of $3,300.

Mr. DeSantis raised a robust $20 million in less than six weeks. But his spending rate averaged more than $212,000 per day.Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

The challenge for Mr. DeSantis in relying so heavily on bigger donors is twofold: It means that he must travel the country extensively to attend fund-raisers to gather their larger checks and that those big donors cannot give to him more than once. That the governor and his wife prefer to travel by private planes adds significant costs, and cuts into the net money raised when crisscrossing the nation for fund-raisers.

His report showed $179,000 in chartered plane costs, along with $483,000 to a limited liability company that was formed within days of his campaign kickoff, with the expenditure only labeled “travel.” A senior campaign official said the campaign planned to make changes to travel practices “to maximize our capabilities,” though the person would not specify what changes were coming.

One way to save on air travel is to have Mr. DeSantis burrow deeper into Iowa, where officials say he may visit all 99 counties.

“He is positioned to do well in Iowa,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in the state, whose group, The Family Leader, hosted Mr. DeSantis and other candidates in Iowa for a recent forum. (Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC paid $50,000 to the group’s foundation, records show, which a super PAC official said was for a sponsorship of the event.)

The DeSantis super PAC emphasized that after being overwhelmed by Mr. Trump in free media coverage and millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads, Mr. DeSantis was still standing.

“Any other candidate would be bleeding on the ground,” said Kristin Davison, Never Back Down’s chief operating officer. “DeSantis,” she added, “is still No. 2.”

Shane Goldmacher is a national political reporter and was previously the chief political correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times, he worked at Politico, where he covered national Republican politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. More about Shane Goldmacher

Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. More about Maggie Haberman"

DeSantis Campaign Faces a Reboot and a Reckoning - The New York Times

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