Ron DeSantis’ money problems deepen ahead of a key stretch in the GOP primary

Ron DeSantis has less money and more problems.

The Florida governor’s presidential campaign entered this month with just $5 million in cash available for the primary, a sum that reignites doubts about his solvency, budgeting and ability to gain ground on front-running former President Donald Trump.

The pain is so acute that DeSantis is redeploying aides from his Tallahassee headquarters to Des Moines for the stretch run of a do-or-die Jan. 15 Iowa caucus. A better-funded operation might hire locally rather than shift resources. It’s a cost-saving move that past presidential campaigns have typically employed only as a last-ditch measure to save money — and look for a campaign-changing boost in an early state.

“The cash crunch has accelerated in the past month. It’s a huge problem,” said one DeSantis donor. “If it continues to trend downwards and Trump continues to poll ahead, at some point they’re going to have to figure out if it makes sense to pull out and save face for 2028.”

The fundraising numbers and decision to move staff from Florida to Iowa, confirmed by campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo, were first reported Wednesday by The New York Times. Overall, DeSantis’ operation raised $15 million over the last three months through a joint fundraising committee, his leadership PAC and his campaign, Romeo said.

But some of the money can be spent only in the general election, because it was raised from big donors who already gave the maximum primary donation. And despite rounds of layoffs that were part of a much-publicized reset, DeSantis burned through more primary cash than he raised over the last three months.

At the end of the second quarter, DeSantis had $6.6 million in primary funds available, according to an NBC News analysis of his last campaign finance filing — roughly $1.6 million more than his campaign says it has now.

At the same point in the 2020 election cycle, Vice President Kamala Harris, who was then a senator from California running for the Democratic presidential nomination, had roughly $10 million on hand. She then dropped out in early December 2019, after making a big Iowa-or-bust play.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on presidential campaigns of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and is not aligned with a 2024 candidate, described the $5 million cash on hand as a bleak data point. Pawlenty dropped out of the 2012 presidential race in August 2011, after accruing campaign debt.

“Realistically, he would need 10 times that to be competitive with the rest of the field,” Conant said. “I think the DeSantis campaign is flashing red. After a really tough summer, the campaign is running on fumes. And going all in on Iowa, when nothing else has worked, does not build confidence.”

DeSantis does have a key asset that past campaigns with financial struggles lacked: his cash-flush super PAC, Never Back Down. The super PAC is undergoing its own changes as the DeSantis campaign resets again.

Chris Jankowski, who served both as Never Back Down’s CEO and as a member of its board, is stepping down from the organization’s board of directors and being replaced with Tre Evers, a veteran GOP operative based in Orlando. He will remain on as the group’s chief executive.

“Chris Jankowski graciously held the temporary spot on the board while simultaneously running the Never Back Down organization,” said Erin Perrine, the group’s spokeswoman. “Now that the board has conducted its months’ long search for a permanent additional member, we are excited to welcome Tre Evers to the board of Never Back Down Team.”

Nick Iarossi, a DeSantis ally and fundraiser, rejected the idea that the campaign’s finances had reached a disappointing state.

“Absolutely not,” Iarossi said. “This is a significant improvement over where the campaign was at the end of last quarter when everyone was writing the campaign was dead. This quarterly report of $15 million and the cash on hand shows we are building momentum and moving in the right direction. Everyone is very pleased and donors are opening their wallets after his debate performance.”

Still, the hunt for campaign cash intensified as the last quarter came to a close. Last month, the DeSantis campaign once again directly appealed to Florida-based lobbyists to deliver cash for the campaign. Stephanie Kopelousos, a campaign aide who was previously DeSantis’ legislative affairs director, sent an email to state-level lobbyists asking them to attend a late September fundraiser for the campaign.

“You have seen first-hand how hard the Governor works to deliver for Floridians…our country needs his strong leadership to turn things around,” she wrote in the late September email, which was obtained by NBC News. 

A steep climb ahead

To get to the general election, DeSantis will have to figure out how to climb a long way in a short time with limited money. In Iowa, his best state and the one he is focusing on almost exclusively, he trailed Trump by 30 percentage points or more in a slew of polls released last month.

DeSantis hasn’t visited New Hampshire, the second state on the primary calendar, in more than a month, and his standing there has slipped. Until August, DeSantis polled in a comfortable second place in the Granite State. But in more recent surveys, he fluctuated between third and fifth.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, appears to have capitalized on strong back-to-back debate performances in Milwaukee and Simi Valley, California, to catapult into second place in New Hampshire. A USA Today/Boston Globe/Suffolk survey released this week had Trump at 49 percent in the state, with Haley at 19 percent and DeSantis at 10 percent.

The Haley and DeSantis campaigns are scheduled to attend a donor conference in Dallas Oct. 13, where they will sing for their suppers in front of the American Opportunity Alliance — a set of heavy-hitting GOP megadonors that includes billionaires Paul Singer and Harlan Crow.

A Haley spokesperson declined to provide her fundraising figures for the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30. Campaigns are not required to disclose their numbers to the Federal Election Commission until Oct. 15.

While money is a problem for DeSantis, it is also symptomatic of his struggles to connect with voters on the campaign trail or through two televised primary debates. All of the non-Trump candidates are having trouble building up the kind of grassroots fundraising that fuels many modern campaigns.

It has forced a major strategic turn from DeSantis and Never Back Down.

Earlier this year, DeSantis and his allies played down the importance of winning Iowa, boasted about spending as much as $200 million through the super PAC and outlined a strategy for winning the race by beating Trump delegate-by-delegate in later-voting states. Now, it’s all down to winning Iowa.

Focusing on the first state

DeSantis supporters in the state said the governor remains competitive there.

Iowa state House Majority Whip Henry Stone, one of several dozen state lawmakers there who have endorsed DeSantis, expressed confidence in the campaign Wednesday. He said DeSantis had made progress on completing a “Full Grassley” — visits to each of Iowa’s 99 counties, a feat named for Chuck Grassley, the state’s senior U.S. senator.

“A prominent doctor here in Iowa reached out to me not too long ago and said that he had basically had enough with Trump; voted twice for him in the past, and wasn’t going to do it anymore,” Stone said.

Asked if DeSantis’ cash on hand entering the third quarter was enough, Stone pivoted to headlines embraced Wednesday by the campaign.

“So I guess you and I, maybe we’ve heard two different numbers,” Stone said. “I’ve heard that the campaign actually raised about $15 million in the third quarter. I forgot where I read that or heard that. So I do feel that keeping the boots on the ground is going to be more than possible.”

The Trump camp, which has not released its fundraising numbers yet, sees DeSantis as flailing.

“The Rob DeSanctimonious campaign’s abysmal cash on hand is a direct byproduct of a failed candidate with no message and no reason to run,” Trump co-campaign manager Chris LaCivita said, using an unflattering sobriquet that the former president bestowed on DeSantis. “Republican primary voters know that only one candidate can defeat Joe Biden — and that’s Donald Trump.”

Other political operatives say the money is enough to sustain DeSantis for the time being and that the move to shift staff into Iowa makes sense.

David Kochel, a veteran of Iowa campaigns who served as a top strategist for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid, said he’s skeptical that anyone will beat Trump in the state. But, like a camper needing to outrun his friend rather than an approaching bear, Kochel said DeSantis can survive if he finishes ahead of his other rivals.

“He doesn’t need to beat Trump, he needs to beat everybody else by a lot,” said Kochel, who is not aligned with a candidate. “If I’m him, I’m betting pretty hard on [Iowa]. I don’t know if there’s another way to do it.”

Kochel noted that much of the DeSantis operation’s voter persuasion and turnout work has been “farmed out to the super PAC already” and that the campaign’s fundraising has not yet dried up.

“As long as he can keep staff on the ground and keep the plane flying back and forth from Tallahassee, I think that he’s fine,” Kochel said. “Would they rather have more money? Of course. But it’s not going to drive them from the race at this point.”

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