Tuesday, 21 May 2024

DeSantis Allies’ $200 Million Plan for Beating Trump

A key political group supporting Ron DeSantis’s presidential run is preparing a $100 million voter-outreach push so big it plans to knock on the door of every possible DeSantis voter at least four times in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and five times in the kickoff Iowa caucuses.

The effort is part of an on-the-ground organizing operation that intends to hire more than 2,600 field organizers by Labor Day, an extraordinary number of people for even the best-funded campaigns.

Top officials with the pro-DeSantis group, a super PAC called Never Back Down, provided their most detailed account yet of their battle plan to aid Mr. DeSantis, whom they believe they can sell as the only candidate to take on — and win — the cultural fights that are definitional for the Republican Party in 2024.

The group said it expected to have an overall budget of at least $200 million, including more than $80 million to be transferred from an old DeSantis state political account, for the daunting task of vaulting the Florida governor past former President Donald J. Trump, who has established himself as the dominant early front-runner.

Mr. DeSantis is set to enter the presidential race on Wednesday in a live audio conversation on Twitter, and the super PAC’s enormous cash reserves are expected to be among the few advantages that Mr. DeSantis has in the race.

The group is already taking on many tasks often reserved for the campaign itself: securing endorsements in early primary states, sending mailers, organizing on campuses, running television ads, raising small donations for the campaign in an escrow account and working behind the scenes to build crowds for the governor’s events. Hiring is underway in 18 states and officials said plans were in the works to assemble various pro-DeSantis coalitions, such as for voters who are veterans or those focused on issues like abortion, guns or agriculture.

“No one has ever contemplated the scale of this organization or operation, let alone done it,” said Chris Jankowski, the group’s chief executive. “This has just never even been dreamed up.”

In Iowa, the group has opened a boot camp on the outskirts of Des Moines, giving the facility the code name “Fort Benning,” after the old Army training outpost, with 189 graduates of an eight-day training program the first wave of an organizing army to follow. Door knocking begins on Wednesday in New Hampshire.

The endeavor echoes the “Camp Cruz” that Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign set up near Des Moines.

At the helm of the DeSantis super PAC is Jeff Roe, a veteran Republican strategist who was Mr. Cruz’s campaign manager then. In an interview, Mr. Roe described an ambitious political apparatus whose 2,600 field organizers by the fall would be roughly double the peak of Senator Bernie Sanders’s entire 2020 primary campaign staff.

Mr. Roe also previewed some of the contrasts that Never Back Down planned to draw with Mr. Trump. He argued that Mr. Trump had shied away from key fights that motivate the Republican base and on which Mr. DeSantis has led, including on L.G.B.T.Q. issues, schools and taking on corporate America.

“How do you beat Trump?” Mr. Roe said, pointing to Mr. DeSantis’s assertiveness on those cultural issues. “Well, you beat Trump by beating Trump. And where Ron DeSantis has beaten Trump is by doing what Republican voters want him to do the most.”

Mr. DeSantis has steadily lost ground so far in 2023 and is trailing Mr. Trump nationally in polls by an average of 30 percentage points. And as the governor’s standing has diminished, more candidates have jumped into the race, an ever-expanding field that could make the sheer math even harder for Mr. DeSantis to topple a former president with a significant base of loyalists.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, mocked the group as “Always Back Down,” calling it “a clown show of epic proportions.”

“If DeSantis runs his campaign the same way as his super PAC, he’ll be in for a rude awakening,” Mr. Cheung said.

In framing the 2024 race, Mr. Roe acknowledged that Mr. Trump has been “the leader of a movement.” But, in Mr. Roe’s telling, it is Mr. DeSantis alone who “has the opportunity to be the leader of the party and the movement.”

“That is a key difference,” he said. “I don’t believe people fundamentally understand that you can be a leader of a movement and not be the leader of your party. Ron DeSantis has the ability to be both. Trump does not.”

That is a line that Mr. DeSantis himself articulated last week in a private call with donors that was organized by Never Back Down. He played up the money he has raised for state parties, including in New Hampshire.

“Ultimately, politics is a team sport,” Mr. DeSantis told donors, adding an oblique shot at Mr. Trump. “You know, there’s some that kind of raise money just for themselves.”

Republican primary voters, Mr. Roe said, see the battle against the progressive left as an existential fight. He argues that Mr. DeSantis, not Mr. Trump, has led on three touchstone issues in that fight: taking on corporate America, engaging in what is being taught in schools and confronting shifting norms and acceptance around sexual orientation and transgender medical care.

The governor’s clash with Disney touches on all three: battling a big corporation over what began as a fight over classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary schools. Mr. Trump sees the Disney battle as futile and has recently cheered on the company as it hit back against Mr. DeSantis.

Mr. Roe added that the intensity of the threat that Republicans perceive to their way of life is what makes electability a more salient issue for the party in 2024, and what makes Mr. DeSantis’s ability to fight those fights and still win in Florida so appealing.

“That is a manifest separation between the two candidates,” he said.

Unlike a candidate’s campaign committee, which has to abide by strict caps for each donor, there are no limits on how much a super PAC is allowed to raise.

And this one begins with unmatched financial firepower. Never Back Down is expected to begin with around $120 million — $40 million it says it already raised and $80 million from Mr. DeSantis’s old state political committee — a sum that is equal to what Jeb Bush’s super PAC spent in total in 2016.

But there are several legal impediments to this financial freedom. The people who run super PACs are prohibited from discussing strategy with the candidate or the campaign staff. Of course, if Mr. DeSantis disagrees with any super PAC decisions, he can always say so publicly and urge them to change course.

As a result, the biggest super PACs — entities that have existed for just the last roughly 12 years — have often essentially become independent vehicles to buy expensive television advertising. That model, however, is extremely inefficient. When the election nears, the airwaves are cluttered and candidates are guaranteed, by law, far lower rates than super PACs. It is one reason the pro-DeSantis group plans to spend so heavily on its field program, officials said, citing studies that show personal voter contact has far greater return on investment.

“That’s not to say that we won’t do TV, it’s that it’s not all that we’ll do,” said Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer of Never Back Down. “We understand that in the first four states that peer-to-peer, neighbor-to-neighbor conversation and conversion is going to be extremely important.”

Strategists with Never Back Down have been consulting lawyers and studying precedent to see exactly how far the group can stretch the legal bounds of what tasks it can perform without tripping any legal wires. One overlooked twist in election law is that super PAC advisers can move to the campaign, so it is possible entire departments at Never Back Down could eventually join the DeSantis campaign.

The hand-in-glove efforts were on display during Mr. DeSantis’s recent trip to Iowa. After Mr. Trump canceled a rally near Des Moines, the governor decided he wanted to swoop in for a last-minute event in the area. But it wasn’t the governor’s staff that scrambled to bring people to the location but employees of the super PAC, who, working with Mr. DeSantis’s team, sent a flurry of texts and calls to assemble a crowd at Jethro’s BBQ that evening.

“On like two hours’ notice, at some local pizza joint or barbecue joint, we got like 200 people to show up,” Mr. DeSantis raved to donors on the call, which The New York Times listened to.

Despite Mr. DeSantis’s professed aversion to political consultants, particularly those who work around Washington, and his history of asking questions about what people who work for him are making, his team has anointed one of the Republican Party’s most famous consultants to oversee Never Back Down.

Mr. Roe has emerged as an unusual lightning rod, among DeSantis allies and rivals alike. His aggressive approach to both campaigning and business development was the subject of a recent Washington Post article that detailed his firm’s efforts to vacuum up ever more revenue, including from its political clients.

Mr. Trump himself obsesses over Mr. Roe, who is the only political consultant that he regularly talks about, according to people who have discussed the matter with the former president. Advisers so regularly feed him stories about the money spent on Mr. Roe’s losing campaigns that Mr. Trump has coined a nickname for him: “the kiss of death.”

Never Back Down has already spent more than $10 million on pro-DeSantis television ads this spring. The early spending has been the subject of second-guessing from some DeSantis allies as it coincided with a drop in the polls. But Never Back Down advisers defended the ads as not just propping up Mr. DeSantis before he enters the race but as part of an enormous experiment — including mail, text messaging and control groups — to study what means of communicating works against Mr. Trump.

Officials said voters were surveyed before and after in tens of thousands of interviews to determine the impact.

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. @ShaneGoldmacher

Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. @jonathanvswan

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. @maggieNYT

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