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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down makes up for governor’s financial shortfalls

In this photo from July 15, 2023, guests attend U.S. Rep. Zach Nunn's "Operation Top Nunn: Salute to Our Troops" fundraiser where Republican presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spoke in Ankeny, Iowa.   (Scott Olson/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Max Greenwood Miami Herald

For all the hand-wringing over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign finances, the main super PAC supporting his presidential bid doesn’t appear to have the same problem.

Never Back Down, the outside group formed months before DeSantis announced his 2024 campaign, is flush with cash — and spending money on activities and services that are often associated with a candidate’s official campaign.

Financial disclosures filed on Monday with the Federal Election Commission confirmed what the group has said for weeks: that it pulled in more than $130 million since March and has plenty left in the bank.

The group’s outsized warchest sets it up to be a financial and political behemoth in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses in January and beyond, a period during which DeSantis must turn his faltering campaign around. It could also emerge as a serious counterweight to the network of super PACs supporting former President Donald Trump, which are burning through money at a rapid clip.

In terms of sheer cash, no other super PAC backing a 2024 Republican presidential hopeful comes close to Never Back Down. The group finished June with nearly $97 million in the bank, while its closest rival, the Trump-aligned Make America Great Again Inc., boasts a cash reserve of just under $31 million, federal filings show.

SFA Fund Inc., the main super PAC backing former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign, finished the first half of the year with about $17 million in cash on hand, while Trust in the Mission PAC, which is supporting U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s 2024 ambitions, had roughly $15 million.

Never Back Down’s disclosure suggests that DeSantis has a financial cushion to fall on, should he need it in the months leading up to the 2024 presidential primaries.

While federal law forbids campaigns and super PACs from coordinating with one another, DeSantis’ team and Never Back Down have pushed the limits of those rules. The super PAC began hiring and deploying staffers to early primary states well before DeSantis ever announced his presidential bid, helping to build out the infrastructure for a ground campaign that DeSantis has leaned on in recent months.

The governor has also joined an Iowa bus tour organized by the super PAC, billed during stops as a special guest.

Monday’s filings underscore how Never Back Down has used its money to pay for activities typically covered by political campaigns themselves. It spent $1.1 million on payroll and related expenses, like taxes and insurance, as well as another $4 million on canvassing and $1.5 million on polling.

It’s a relatively novel approach in the world of super PACs, which have traditionally focused on more passive outreach efforts, like advertising.

“Every conversation at the door, every text message reply is making us smarter and more efficient,” Chris Jankowski, the CEO of Never Back Down, said in a statement. “We are running a full-scale operation that has never been done before at this level by either party. Donald Trump is using most of his donors’ money to cover his legal fees.”

DeSantis’ own campaign has run into financial difficulties in recent weeks. While he raised more than $20 million in the first six weeks as a candidate, his campaign burned through roughly $8 million of that. Of the $12 million remaining at the end of June, only $9 million could be used in the Republican primary.

DeSantis’ campaign also relied heavily on large donors in its opening weeks, and many are unable to give anymore because of federal contribution limits. The cash crunch has forced the campaign to act quickly to cut costs. Since mid-July, the campaign has laid off roughly 40% of its staff.

Never Back Down doesn’t face the same problem. Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations and other entities, so long as they don’t give money directly to political candidates.

Most of Never Back Down’s windfall came from an $82.5 million transfer from DeSantis’ former state political committee, now called Empower Parents PAC. But it also raised nearly $50 million on its own, mainly from ultra-wealthy donors, some of whose contributions far surpassed the million-dollar mark.

Among the biggest givers were a handful who previously supported Trump, DeSantis’ chief rival for the 2024 Republican nomination. Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, a former Trump ally who broke with the former president after the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, was by far the biggest donor to Never Back Down, cutting a check for more than $20 million.

The group also received $1 million apiece from Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, a Republican megadonor couple that has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars behind conservative candidates and causes over the years.

There are other challenges for DeSantis. While he’s still running in second place in most early state and national polls, his support has trended downward since the beginning of the year and he’s struggled to make up any ground on Trump. He and his campaign are in the midst of a reset aimed at reversing his decline.

Of course, Trump has his own set of challenges.

Trump Save America, the former president’s joint fundraising committee, raised about $53 million in the first half of the year. But the two committees that split that money – Trump’s own campaign and his leadership PAC Save America — spent more than that in the same timeframe, raising questions about the long term sustainability of the fundraising arrangement.

Save America’s finances appear particularly dire. The group has just $3.6 million left in the bank after spending tens of millions of dollars in legal fees for Trump and his associates. The former president is facing a series of civil matters and criminal charges as he seeks the GOP’s 2024 nomination. He could be indicted in other cases in the coming days and weeks.