The national stature of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is rising swiftly among the country’s Republicans, and the checks from deep-pocketed donors are following.
His political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, brought in $2.7 million in February, its largest monthly haul — by far ― since the Republican was sworn in as governor two years ago. It’s the latest signal that DeSantis is putting the pandemic in the rear-view mirror and shifting focus to his political future.
The first-term governor paused contributions to his committee after the coronavirus first arrived in Florida. As he publicly and proudly reopened the state for business in the back half of 2020, he also started accepting donations to his political committee again.
As the checks came in, DeSantis was boosting his visibility in Florida and nationwide. Part of that was his job. He has crisscrossed the state to open new vaccination sites as he continues to manage the public health crisis. Part of it was extracurricular. He’s been a frequent guest on nightly Fox News programs favored by reliable Republican voters.
“Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to get high marks for keeping Florida safe and open for business,” said Helen Aguirre-Ferre, the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. “Florida has been getting a lot of attention because of the Governor’s conservative and principled policies which are working — this in turn is driving support for Gov. DeSantis’ efforts in 2022.”
DeSantis is up for re-election next year, though he hasn’t officially filed to run yet. That limits him from holding fundraisers and campaign events. But his committee can raise money and he can traverse the state on business.
For example, Spring Bay Capital, a private equity firm founded by top DeSantis donor Frederick Sontag of Ponte Vedra Beach, gave half a million dollars to DeSantis’ committee on Feb. 8. The same day, DeSanits held a media event in Little Havana, a common stop on the South Florida campaign circuit, where he had a surprise announcement: vaccines were coming solely for the Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Several times a week, DeSantis opens up new vaccine locations, often in neighborhoods where Republicans outnumber Democrats or where important voting blocs reside. Cameras are invited to capture footage of seniors getting shots in their arms or DeSantis’ latest confrontation with a reporter questioning his ad hoc coronavirus strategy.
DeSantis has also faced criticism for opening vaccine sites at locations with ties to political donors. On Wednesday, the Miami Herald reported DeSantis received $250,000 in February from former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a resident of Key Largo, where an affluent and exclusive club received some of the state’s earliest vaccines.
Also sending six-figure sums in February were hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones of Palm Beach ($150,000), the Big Easy Casino in Hallandale Beach ($100,000), and the paving and highway construction company Vecellio Group based in West Palm Beach ($100,000).
In 2018, DeSantis leaned heavily on a donor network closely tied to former President Donald Trump and his committee’s latest finance report indicates that he may again.
Troy Link, the CEO of a beef jerky empire who held a Florida fundraiser for Trump during the height of the state’s coronavirus outbreak, gave DeSantis’s committee $50,000. The committee also received $100,000 from Anthony Lomangino, a garbage hauling tycoon and Mar-a-Lago member who helped pay the legal fees of Trump associates ensnared in former special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election.
Meanwhile, New York art dealer Joseph Nahmad contributed $33,300. Nahmad’s brother, Helly Nahmad, was among the controversial last-minute pardons issued by Trump in one of his final acts as president. Hillel Nahmad pleaded guilty in 2014 to running a sports gambling ring that investigators said had ties to Russian-American organized crime.
Few Republicans have navigated the post-Trump era with the same ease as DeSantis. He opened last month’s Conservative Political Action Committee in Orlando by turning the page on the “the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear,” and calling out Democratic governor’s for their shutdown policies. The home-court crowd rewarded DeSantis, naming him their top presidential pick in 2024 — as long as Trump doesn’t run.
“We are in an oasis of freedom in a nation that’s suffering from the yoke of oppressive lockdowns,’' DeSantis said during his speech. “Florida got it right, and the lockdown states got it wrong.”
DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus, often criticized by Democrats, left-leaning talk show hosts and public health experts, and his alliance with Trump has only fueled more talk about his future as a presidential contender for Republicans.
It has also all-but eliminated the threat of a primary challenge in his bid for a second term, though a handful of Democrats are already positioning themselves for a run. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the state’s only statewide elected Democrat, has sharpened her criticism of DeSantis of late, as has U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a former governor who is seriously considering another campaign for the office.
DeSantis will have a significant fundraising head start over any Democrat that decides to run. His political committee has raised $5 million just since October, when he lifted the moratorium on contributions.
Florida’s business community has largely favored DeSantis’ approach to the coronavirus and responded in February with more financial support for the governor’s political committee. The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association PAC donated $15,000 to Friends of Ron DeSantis and he received another $150,000 from political committees closely aligned with the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other large business entities.