In an urgent appeal to wealthy Republicans who had assembled in Milwaukee ahead of the first GOP presidential primary debate, top brass for the super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told donors they needed an injection of $50 million over the next four months, according to leaked audio obtained by CNN.
“We just need your help getting $50 million more by the end of the year, and $100 million more by the end of March,” Never Back Down CEO Chris Jankowski told donors hours before DeSantis stepped on the stage Aug. 23, according to the audio. “I’m not worried about the second 50. We need the first 50.”
Throughout an hour-long presentation, Jankowski, chief operating officer Kristin Davison and chief strategist Jeff Roe walked donors through their inside view of how DeSantis is faring just five months before the Iowa caucus kicks off primary season. Their frank but upbeat assessments touched on perceived shortcomings in media exposure compared to the Trump campaign, their push to lean more heavily on Florida first lady Casey DeSantis and their goal of getting more than 100,000 Iowans to caucus for DeSantis.
Among the information shared was the “DeSantis index,” an in-house metric that measures the likelihood someone will back the Florida governor.
“If you have an education, if you have higher income, if you read the Bible and if you go to church regularly, you happen to be a DeSantis supporter,” Roe told the room.
The audio provides an inside look at the strategy behind a super PAC that has assumed an unusually outsized role in DeSantis’ presidential campaign – one that has attracted the attention of campaign finance watchdogs and has, at times, led to friction with DeSantis’ official operation. The tension spilled into the open just days before the Milwaukee event, when the super PAC released a memo with debate pointers for DeSantis. The unsolicited advice was poorly received.
Never Back Down – initially funded in large part by $82.5 million transferred from DeSantis’ state political committee – has operated as a de facto shadow campaign for the governor. It has assumed traditional campaign duties, including building out an extensive field operation in early nominating states, training operatives, enlisting endorsements from local leaders and planning DeSantis’ travel and staging his events. Last week, DeSantis toured northwest Iowa on a bus operated by Never Back Down.
Roughly 60 donors attended the fundraising lunch, hosted at a DoubleTree hotel blocks away from the debate venue, sources familiar with the event details told CNN. Among the attendees was Dallas businessman Roy Bailey, the former co-chair of the Trump campaign’s finance committee who has since changed allegiances.
Davison told CNN Thursday “every investor wants to see how you get to the final round and how you win, and almost all the donors left confident that that we had a clear path to victory to help the governor win.”
The super PAC arranged the pre-debate fundraiser at a critical juncture in the campaign for DeSantis. After a month-long shakeup of his political operation to address stalled poll numbers and cost overruns, the debate was seen internally as a moment for the Florida governor to rally fundraisers and supporters for its aggressive fall campaign.
While it was up to DeSantis to deliver a performance that could quell outstanding concerns fears about his viability, his super PAC was privately working to reassure a room of wealthy individuals – described on the recording as a mix of DeSantis’ loyal backers and longtime GOP donors – of its long-term strategy.
The pitch appeared structured to convince donors the super PAC had a plan for their dollars if they would open up their pocketbooks. A fundraising goal of $50 million by the end of the year would exceed the $47 million the super PAC raised on its own between its March launch and the end of June. Almost half of that money came from one source, Nevada businessman and space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who recently told Reuters he intended to refrain from further contributions until DeSantis could demonstrate he’s “able to generate more on his own.”
The additional resources would help cover $25 million in airtime Never Back Down plans to purchase after Labor Day through Halloween in New Hampshire and Iowa, according to a source with understanding of the super PACs strategy. The fall television advertising – likely to be extended to Thanksgiving – is an unexpected expense that Never Back Down has nevertheless taken on, the source said.
Jankowski, Davison and Roe spent much of their presentation hyper-focused on former President Donald Trump and his inherent ability to out-gain all other GOP candidates in earned media, meaning organic and free coverage on television, online and in newsprint. Both Davison and Roe emphasized the positive impact Trump’s indictments are having on the former president’s White House bid, something they used to try and persuade donors to help them overcome.
“Donald Trump probably gets roughly at least $30 million of earned media every single day. We’re number two, with roughly $5 (million) to $6 million every single day. Where you see the spikes are after every indictment,” Davison said. “After every indictment, it goes up to $100 million of earned media, and in a presidential race, no news is bad news. What we really learned in 2016 is that Donald Trump dominated earned media and we see it happening now.”
Roe, meanwhile, made very clear how problematic this is for DeSantis, arguing that Trump is not only a major threat to DeSantis, but to the GOP at large.
“We can’t lose to Trump. If Trump’s the nominee, we’re gonna lose the White House. If we lose the White House, we’re gonna lose the Senate. And if we lose the Senate, we’re gonna lose the House. And [Democrats] are going to be in charge of the full House, Senate and White House for at least two years,” Roe told the audience.
Roe further suggested Democrats would add two new states if given the chance, including Puerto Rico. DeSantis while serving in the US House co-sponsored a bill authored by Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress to provide the US territory with a path to statehood.
Though Never Back Down officials warned Trump’s legal troubles present a challenge, they insisted it had not hardened Republicans’ resolve to nominate him once again.
“Trump gets a bump every time he gets indicted. But there are fewer and fewer and fewer people that will support him in the party,” he added.
The PAC representatives walked the crowd through their internal plans for improving DeSantis’ likeability with voters who remain on the fence. One of the key takeaways from their data, they said, is how messaging around DeSantis’ “bio” — mainly his military record, his family and his background as “a blue-collar worker” — plays better with voters than other topic areas. Super PAC advisers acknowledged many Republicans were unaware DeSantis is the only veteran in the race or that he was a father.
DeSantis mirrored that biographical emphasis later that night at the debate. He called himself a “blue collar kid” who “worked minimum wage jobs to be able to make ends meet” and he touched on his personal responsibilities as a husband and dad to three young kids. He emphasized his military experience at several points, noting that he was “assigned with” and deployed “alongside” Navy SEALs — leaving out that he was a JAG lawyer.
Enlarging Casey DeSantis’s role, specifically, is something super PAC officials said they view as a crucial way to boost the governor’s campaign. “With her help, they convert an entire room,” Davison said of the governor’s wife. “She just brings a level of humility and warmness.”
The group also spent much of their presentation boasting that Never Back Down has undertaken an unprecedented operation, arguing they will change the way presidential politics rely on PACs for decades to come.
In recent presidential cycles, super PACs have leveraged their ability to raise unlimited sums to pay for digital and television advertisements, one of the costliest expenses for a political operation.
“Our role is really new and it’s even grown to play a role like no other PAC in a presidential race,” Jankowski said. “We are hosting events. We’ve been doing fundraising online. We are doing advertising. We have built a political program in the early states and beyond like none other. And, you know, simply put, Never Back Down is changing the game.”
Roe claimed the super PAC’s data operation had developed extensive knowledge of Republican primary voters and caucus goers. That data told them Georgia was “our best state” given the demographics and that “79% of the people tonight are going to watch the debate and turn it off after 19 minutes.”
“We’re tracking these people all the time,” he said.
Federal rules prevent presidential candidates and their campaigns from coordinating with supportive super PACs. Many Republican strategists and campaign veterans have questioned the arrangement between DeSantis’ campaign and the super PAC, pointing to the limitations of running a political operation from the outside. It is also the subject of a complaint filed with the Federal Elections Commission by the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, which alleged a violation of campaign finance laws.