Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was back on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa on a bus tour this week, but those events were not organized or funded by his regular campaign. Instead, a federal super PAC called Never Back Down handled the event featuring DeSantis as a “special guest.”
But why is he listed as a special guest? Campaign finance laws prohibit direct coordination of strategy and messaging, according to the Federal Election Commission, but there are loopholes such as allowing a candidate to appear as a special guest at a super PAC event.
As DeSantis begins to deal with a cash crunch—he’s continuing to lay off staffers—the super PAC is now being assigned more tasks than have historically been organized by such entities.
Never Back Down announced a 30-second air buy last week that highlighted Donald Trump’s attacks on Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. “Trump should fight Democrats, not Republicans,” the ad said. It was part of a seven-figure ad buy that the super PAC was making in Iowa.
And the group announced on Thursday that canvassers had knocked on their one millionth door on behalf of DeSantis last weekend, becoming “the first to hit one million doors across the country for any organization this presidential cycle.”
Laura Loomer, a Republican and staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, says it’s wrong that the governor’s political team is using funds (mostly) earmarked to help his reelection effort in 2022 to now being redirected and used against Trump in their battle for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
“I think that it’s very disingenuous and it’s very deceptive for him to take, right, $200 million in donations from Trump supporters like he did, he broke fundraising records in 2022 when he ran for governor again, and then he held onto $100 million of those donations, and now he’s weaponized them against Donald Trump,” she said earlier this week at the Tampa Bay Young Republican (TBYR) club. She is a controversial far-right activist and former Florida congressional candidate.
How did all the money come in?
The reason for the unusual phrasing—“special guest”—in a Never Back Down press release is that federal law prohibits super PACs—organizations that are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals—from donating to candidates and their campaigns or coordinating with them.
Never Back Down announced that it had raised $150 million for the campaign earlier this month.
More than half of that $150 million—$82.5 million—was transferred in late May right after DeSantis officially announced his candidacy for president. Due to campaign finance maneuvers, the millions went from a DeSantis-supported state political committee to the federal super PAC, Never Back Down.
It was an unusual transfer that has never previously been done in presidential politics, but it has received only scant attention by his political opponents. And it has spawned complaints by the Federal Elections Commission.
However, there won’t likely be any updates on the complaints anytime soon. “By law, all enforcement cases must remain confidential until they’re closed,” said Judith Ingram, a press officer with the FEC. “Once a matter is resolved (following a vote by the Commissioners), the agency has up to 30 days to publish the documents associated with that matter.”
That could be a long time.
Loomer wants more Florida Republicans to know about what happened with that cash. At the young Republican club, she made the case that members should reconsider their endorsement of DeSantis over Trump back in May.
“How many of you donated to Ron DeSantis in 2022?” Loomer asked those packed into a relatively small room at American Social, a gastropub located on Tampa’s Harbor Island. “And how many of you voted for Donald Trump (in 2020)? Do you like the fact that your donation money is going to be going towards attack ads on Donald Trump?”
Several people in the audience shouted out “No.”
“It’s not acceptable,” Loomer replied. “And the fact that he has also weaponized and abused his power to change Florida law like changing Florida’s Resign to Run law? Unacceptable. That’s the kind of stuff that we would attack the left for.”
Although the Phoenix and other publications have faithfully reported on that transfer of campaign funds, it appeared that many in the room this week hadn’t heard much about the transfer—or other intense criticisms from a fellow Republican that Loomer expressed about DeSantis.
Jake Hoffman, the president of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans, had kicked off the evening by telling Loomer that there were members of his club that said, “we shouldn’t give you a platform,” but added that his group stood for embracing free speech, even if it was unpopular.
The event was billed as “TBYR shouldn’t have endorsed DeSantis,” and Loomer at every turn found reasons to blast the Florida governor—specifically regarding the transfer of that $82. 5 million.
“When Ron DeSantis had his $120 million dollars left over (it was actually less than that immediately after the 2022 election but ultimately increased to more than $80 million), they changed the name of his PAC,” she began. “It was called ‘Friends of Ron DeSantis’ because it was a state entity, and one of the first things he did was he appointed in May of 2022 a guy by the name of Cord Byrd as his Secretary of State. And he quietly had Cord Byrd change the Florida election handbook with regards to how you’re allowed to transfer funds between state entities like state PACS and federal PACS. And what Ron DeSantis did is he deceptively had the name of his PAC—“Friends of Ron DeSantis” changed to the ‘Empower Parents PAC.’”
Changing state guidelines
As originally reported by NBC News, state election officials changed state guidelines that previously prohibited transferring money from state to federal committees back in March, two months before the actual transfer of DeSantis campaign funds from his state political committee to a federal super PAC was made.
Loomer also criticized Florida Republican leadership for passing the “resign to run” law as part of the election reform bill (SB 7050) this past session that allows DeSantis to campaign for governor without having to step down from office.
On that, she and Hoffman shared some common ground, as he bemoaned the fact that the law was written only for a state elected official running for president or vice-president. Hoffman said the current law discourages state representatives for example, from running for Congress because if their campaigns don’t pan out, they can’t return back to their state House seat.
The Phoenix is a nonprofit news site that’s free of advertising and free to readers. We cover state government and politics with a staff of five journalists located at the Florida Press Center in downtown Tallahassee.