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DeSantis now fundraiser in chief for Florida Republicans

The governor appears to have settled a feud among top officials in the party.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at pre-legislative news conference on Tuesday in Tallahassee. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
Published Nov. 1, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Faced with a president that needs Florida to win re-election in 2020, and a Republican Party of Florida that needs money, Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to have mended fences with the top officials of his party and is assuming the mantle as fundraiser in chief.

At an hour-long, off-calendar meeting at the Republican Party of Florida headquarters Friday morning, DeSantis met with several lobbyists and discussed what kind of fundraising is needed to re-elect President Donald Trump, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

“Republicans can’t lose Florida, so everything’s on the table,’’ said Al Cardenas, the former long-time chair of the Republican Party of Florida whose business partner, Slater Bayliss, attended the meeting. “The governor is essential in raising the funds you need in a presidential election year.”

RELATED: Join us for an Election 2020 conversation with Florida’s top Republican, top Democrat

Even though the presidential race is the only statewide contest in Florida next year, the stakes are among the highest in years, said Cardenas, who runs a lobbying firm based in Miami, Tallahassee and Tampa.

“Democrats don’t have to go through Florida to win the presidency, but Republicans do, and we have razor-thin margins,’’ Cardenas said. “It’s all going to be about turnout, and they’ve got to raise enough money to do voter registration and get out the vote.”

In the last three months, DeSantis has gradually taken a higher profile within the party. In August, he replaced the executive director of the party and installed Peter O’Rourke, a former interim secretary of Veterans Affairs under Trump.

In September, as Politico first reported, DeSantis’ former campaign manager Susie Wiles stepped down from her political job with DeSantis as well as with Trump’s Florida campaign team, a move that was reportedly done at DeSantis’ urging.

The party’s annual Statesman’s Dinner was postponed earlier this fall, amid rumors that fundraising for it had stalled. On Tuesday, however, DeSantis announced it had been rescheduled for Dec. 7, and that Trump would be the featured guest.

“The governor’s going to play a very big role in making sure our president wins in 2020,’’ said RPOF chair Joe Gruters, who was named to the party post by DeSantis in January. “We have America’s most popular governor helping us and the president of the United State helping us.”

DeSantis, who came into office after three terms in Congress, does not have much experience as a prodigious fundraiser, and the unrest at the party during his first 10 months as governor has given some donors cold feet.

Questioning expenses

In the last two months of 2018 and the first quarter of this year, the party’s credit card racked up nearly $1.8 million in charges, an eye-popping figure that raised questions and led to internal protests by some party officials.

To shore up confidence that the party is in good hands, party officials have ordered an operational audit to review the structure and make changes, said Gruters, who is also an accountant and a state senator from Sarasota. It is expected to be released next week.

“Whenever you have new people come in, they want to start fresh and you want to make sure everything is being done properly,’’ he said. “It was just to make sure that everybody has the comfort that they need and if we find weaknesses, we can make improvements upon them.”

Unlike the eras of previous Republican Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, when the party was the most powerful fundraiser in the Southeast, legislators and governors can now establish individual political committees and bypass the party, starving the party of the ability to charge pass-through fees and consolidate its political influence.

“The parties won’t be the giants they were decades ago,’’ Gruters said. “The parties now have to learn how to be more creative and come up with ways to make it work.”

For his part, DeSantis continues to raise money for his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. Along with Florida’s two Republican senators in Washington, DeSantis is seen by many Republicans as eyeing the presidency when Trump leaves office.

In the third quarter of 2019, the RPOF raised $2.8 million, up from the $1.8 million it raised during the second quarter but down from the $5.1 million raised during the first quarter, which included DeSantis’ inauguration.

Worrying about donors

Cardenas warned that RPOF will have to “resolve the internal stuff” soon because high-figure Republican donors “are good business people.”

“They want to make sure the party is run well so their funds are going to be used wisely,’’ he said.

Although DeSantis wouldn’t stop to talk with a reporter after the breakfast meeting, he has recently been a regular visitor to the headquarters located just blocks from the Capitol, an RPOF staff member said.

DeSantis’ attempt to exert more influence over the party has not appeased everyone, however. Alan Levy, a member of the Lafayette County Republican executive committee, sent emails to party officials asking to see the individual receipts from those $1.8 million in credit card charges. He was told he would first have to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and he refused to do so.

Gruters said the nondisclosure agreement “was standard operating procedure for some time” at the party.

Through the turmoil, Gruters has maintained the support of Trump and appears to have the confidence of the governor.

“The president is loyal to both the governor and Gruters,’’ Cardenas said.

He added, however, that the president’s decision this week to make Florida his home state will only “add more pressure.”

“I don’t think it makes difference in the minds of voters, but it does in terms of media coverage,’’ Cardenas said.

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