Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis attends the Thanksgiving Family Forum at the downtown Marriott on November 17, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. The Christian faith based forum hosts three Republican Presidential candidates, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Former US Ambassador Nikki Haley to speak on political issues.
Newton, Iowa CNN  — 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had only moments earlier departed a Saturday celebration marking his completion of a 99-county tour of Iowa – a feat he has hyped for months – when word began to spread that another wave of turmoil had hit the machine trying to elect him president.

Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting the Republican’s White House bid, abruptly let go three key senior staffers that evening, including an interim CEO who had just been installed nine days earlier. The sudden departures sent shockwaves throughout DeSantis’ political operation, from Tallahassee to Des Moines. Some people intimately involved in the effort to elect DeSantis learned of the dismissals the night they happened. A source inside the super PAC told CNN the changes as a whole were distracting and said they came as a surprise to people at Never Back Down.

One of the dismissed operatives had appeared that day at a super PAC event in Sioux City, Iowa, that featured DeSantis.

For DeSantis, the tumult once again overshadowed the candidate just six weeks before the Iowa caucuses – threatening to upend one of the chief rationales for his candidacy: his ability to govern without the unending drama or chaos that follows former President Donald Trump. The next day, he presented himself as a focused and disciplined candidate, never mentioning the behind-the-scenes political strife.

“I don’t care what they say about me. I don’t care the arrows that they sling at me. I don’t care about any of that,” DeSantis told voters Sunday. “It’s not about me. It’s about you.”

The events of the weekend also brought back to the forefront long-standing questions about the decision by DeSantis – an inherently distrusting person with an insular circle of advisers – to put an outside entity essentially in charge of his campaign. With the Iowa caucuses nearing, DeSantis loyalists – most with little experience running presidential campaigns – have lately seized more control of his political operation.

DeSantis and his staff have repeatedly downplayed the dizzying staff shake-ups that have hit his campaign and super PAC since the summer. In a statement to CNN, deputy campaign manager David Polyansky said, “The collective firepower of Team DeSantis remains unmatched.”

“Never Back Down boasts an impressive field operation and ground game,” Polyansky said. “Working alongside their independent effort, we all celebrated hitting our 99th Iowa county this weekend and will carry the support of the most robust turnout operation in modern Iowa history into success.”

The architect of that field operation, Kristin Davison, was among those let go from the super PAC Saturday. She was in her second week as interim CEO, replacing another top executive who unexpectedly quit, after previously serving as chief operating officer.

In another high-profile exit, Adam Laxalt, one of DeSantis’ oldest friends in politics, also recently stepped down as chairman of the super PAC’s board.

A person inside the DeSantis campaign succinctly said of the departures: “This means nothing.”

Several people within the super PAC taken aback by the changes nevertheless believe that Never Back Down remains well positioned to carry out its mission.

There’s little evidence that suggests the constant upheaval has reached Republican voters and caucusgoers, who rarely follow the machinations of campaigns as closely as reporters and political operatives. Indeed, the episode went unmentioned in conversations with a dozen Iowa Republicans on Sunday.

Upheaval comes after long confusion between campaign and super PAC

Still, there is little precedent for a campaign undergoing such personnel turnover – with the exception, perhaps, of Trump’s chaotic 2016 White House bid. And there is no denying that the hot-and-cold relationship between the super PAC and campaign – which are not allowed to coordinate – has been a regular distraction ever since DeSantis’ former state political committee seeded Never Back Down with $83 million left over from his 2022 reelection campaign in Florida.

In one notable dustup from the summer, the super PAC released suggested talking points for DeSantis ahead of the first debate, drawing an irate response from the governor’s team. More recently, several individuals with close ties to DeSantis have started a second super PAC, Fight Right Inc., after the governor voiced displeasure with Never Back Down’s advertisements in Iowa.

From the start, Never Back Down took on a host of duties typically reserved for campaigns themselves. Before DeSantis was a candidate, it laid the groundwork for a field operation to train paid staff, recruit volunteers and knock on doors on his behalf. But as DeSantis’ political operation struggled with cost overruns, the governor increasingly relied on the super PAC to take on even more, including to plan his travel, transport him to and host his events, and television advertising.

Though some of the work was unexpected, super PAC officials heralded their efforts as an unprecedented operation and told donors it would forever change presidential elections.

Outsiders remain unimpressed.

The arrangement will be known for “making history blowing through the money they had at the start,” said one veteran Republican fundraiser. The individual, who spoke to CNN on the condition they would not be named, was once optimistic about DeSantis but has long held concerns about the Florida Republican’s circle of advisers, dating back to his days in Congress.

“This entire group of misfits has let DeSantis down and destroyed his chances to become the alternative to Trump,” said the fundraiser.

A Republican consultant in Nevada, where Never Back Down had made an early play before retreating, said GOP operatives across the country for months have mocked the organization’s outreach numbers, convinced that paying hundreds of people to canvas and knock doors would undoubtedly lead to fraud. In July, The Washington Post reported that a paid canvasser acknowledged he was “a little stoned” and shared lewd opinions of a homeowner as he went door-to-door for Never Back Down.

“It’s the dumbest strategy I’ve ever seen,” the Nevada consultant said. “They’re a laughingstock.”

Jess Szymanski, a spokeswoman for the super PAC, dismissed the outside criticism.

“Never Back Down has built the most organized, advanced caucus operation of anyone in the 2024 primary field,” she said, “and we look forward to continuing that great work to help elect Gov. DeSantis the next President of the United States.”

But the collision — and, increasingly, the confusion — between the DeSantis campaign and its original super PAC came into sharper view Sunday afternoon in Iowa. As the governor spoke to supporters inside a coffee shop in Eldridge, two red and blue tour buses were parked just outside, both emblazoned with DeSantis’ name.

The campaign bus, with the message of “fight, win, lead,” was only steps away from the Never Back Down bus, which carried the same slogan. It was a startling sight, with two large buses for one struggling candidate.

After months of watching ads and receiving mailers from the super PAC, voters seemed unaware – and unfazed – by the duplication. But the event at Cody Road Coffee shined a light on one of the key questions facing DeSantis: Have his presidential aspirations been lifted — or complicated — by the dueling groups now steeped in drama?

Even some of the savviest Republican voters in Iowa, who have been a part of caucus campaigns for years, often expressed bewilderment at the division between the DeSantis campaign and the Never Back Down organization.

It was apparent from the moment DeSantis arrived in the state for the first time as an official candidate, on May 30, when he spoke to an overflow crowd in the auditorium of Eternity Church in Clive. As people walked to their cars, passing a white tour bus emblazoned with “Join Team DeSantis for President,” a small army of clipboard-carrying staffers fanned out and asked the Iowans to sign a card of support.

An older woman asked a young aide if he worked for the campaign. He replied: “We’re here in support of Gov. DeSantis.”

She flashed a kind look of confusion and said it was too early to sign a card of support.

Loren Reit, a city councilman from Spencer near the Iowa-South Dakota border, almost missed an August DeSantis appearance in his area. He deleted a text message from a person at an organization he didn’t recognize – Never Back Down – inviting him to see DeSantis. When he checked with city officials, they weren’t aware of any candidates coming to town.

“I wasn’t sure it was legit,” he said.

Reit managed to find out about the event through a friend and showed up without an invite. He was taken aback to find DeSantis speaking in a tiny community college classroom with three “Never Back Down” posters taped to a wall behind him. DeSantis seemed unsure what to say to the group and offered to take questions or “give a spiel.” He was encouraged to do the latter.

After, Reit joked the event was the city’s “best-kept secret,” but he also said there was other evidence the ground game for DeSantis had reached his far corner of the state.

“We’ve had their cards in our door,” he said. “That’s pretty early.”

But as summer turned to fall, with television ads from Never Back Down flooding the airwaves, DeSantis showed little signs of accomplishing his goal of overtaking or becoming the leading alternative to Trump. Across Republican political circles in Iowa, the group’s initials of NBD became a punchline.

“What’s NBD mean, No Big Deal?” a longtime Republican official in Iowa said.