TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis made it official on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Wednesday night. He used the moment to deflect from talk that he is on course to run for president in 2024 and announced he is indeed running for re-election.
“I’m not considering anything beyond doing my job,’’ Desantis said in response to a question from the Fox News host about what he tells people when asked if he is “considering a run for the presidency in 2024. “We’ve got a lot of stuff going on in Florida, I’m going to be running for re-election next year.”
To run for president, DeSantis must first get re-elected governor in 2022, but there’s still no official sign that DeSantis is prepared to file the paperwork required to be an official candidate.
The Florida Division of Elections lists 13 candidates for governor, including Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and former governor and current Congressman Charlie Crist, the top two Democrats in the race. But DeSantis has filed no campaign documents, released no financial disclosure, reported no campaign expenditures, nor established a campaign treasurer — all required for candidates for statewide office in Florida.
He is raising money, through his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.
$50 million raised
As of the last reporting period, the governor’s political committee had raised more than $50 million this election cycle, including almost $46 million during the first eight months of the year.
According to Division of Election records, since DeSantis was inaugurated in January 2019, his political committee has spent more than $510,000 on fundraising and $200,836 on database services, often used for emailing fundraising appeals. The committee reports expenditures of more than $17,800 for photography and $120,000 for advertising.
And the committee spent nearly $400,000 for “store inventory,’’ as Friends of Ron DeSantis promoted the sale of beer koozies, caps and other merchandise featuring the governor’s mask-adverse messaging. The slogans read: “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?” and “Don’t Fauci My Florida.”
Are funds going for campaigning?
What is the purpose of the expenses relating to fundraising consulting, advertising, database services and photography if the governor is not using his political committee for political campaigning?
Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Republican Party of Florida spokesperson and a DeSantis adviser, did not respond to those questions asked Thursday in phone calls, emails and text messages. She would not answer what is the governor’s general view of his obligation to publicly disclose his political activity.
And, as with many advisers to the governor, Ferré indicated that DeSantis would officially announce his candidacy but could not say when.
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Under state law, a candidate must sign a campaign oath and file a financial disclosure within 10 days of naming a campaign treasurer and starting to collect funds intended for campaign purposes.
But candidate-affiliated campaigns also come with restrictions, that make relying on an political action committee more appealing. State law requires that a campaign committee for a candidate for governor collect no more than $3,000 from any single individual or entity. By contrast, the political committee can collect unlimited funds as long as they remain independent from a campaign.
“It’s another example of Florida’s dysfunctional campaign finance system” said Ben Wilcox, president of Integrity Florida, a political watchdog organization.
“We allow potential candidates to have political committees where they can raise unlimited amounts of money 365 days a year, with no end date, and then when they become an official candidate, we put limits on what they can raise and direct into the campaign account,’’ he said. “It’s dysfunctional.”
In 2013, then-Gov. Rick Scott waited until Dec. 10 to officially designate his reelection campaign after his political committee, Let’s Get to Work, had already raised more than $18 million. In 2001, then-Gov. Jeb Bush filed his campaign papers on July 5 and, because Florida law imposed more restrictions on political committees back then, he relied on the Republican Party of Florida’s political arm to collect unlimited funds from his donors.
Coordinated fundraising appeals
For the past year, DeSantis’ political committee has worked in tandem with the governor’s office to coordinate fundraising pitches timed to press events he conducts in his official capacity.
On Tuesday, DeSantis sued the federal government over immigration, demanding the Biden administration retain people who claim asylum at U.S. borders instead of releasing them as they await a hearing. Within minutes of the news conference, the governor’s political committee sent out a fundraising email.
“Joe Biden’s obsession with targeting Florida is nothing more than a distraction to deflect owning any responsibility for the chaos he has caused in our country,” the email said.
The same thing happened in July when DeSantis flew to Del Rio, Texas, on the state plane to co-host a press conference with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and criticize President Joe Biden’s border policies. Just hours before the start of the press conference, Friends of Ron DeSantis launched a fundraising pitch.
“Today, I am heading to Texas for a firsthand look at the raging crisis on our country’s southern border,” the fundraising email said, noting that DeSantis was “the first governor to send resources” to the U.S.-Mexico border after Abbott asked other governors for help.
More than 2,000 donations poured in that weekend, the vast majority were small-dollar donations, according to campaign finance reports.
Florida law restricts state employees from taking “any active part in a political campaign while on duty.” But it does not authorize or forbid coordinated events between a candidate and a political committee, as long as they abide by certain restrictions.
Democrats have called out DeSantis for using the governor’s office to appeal to a national Republican audience.
Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who is also considering running for governor, said the immigration lawsuit is evidence of the governor’s “willingness to fuel the politics of hate to gain support for his future presidential ambitions.”
DeSantis has been conducting a national fundraising push. He has held fundraisers this summer in Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada and California, On Tuesday, he was in western New York for a $5,000-a-plate fundraiser.
However, if the governor has any intention of transferring any of the funds he has raised to a political committee for national office, Florida’s law won’t allow that, Wilcox said.
According to the Division of Elections Political Committee Handbook, “a Florida political committee must use its funds solely for Florida political activities, i.e., depositing contributions and making expenditures, which by definition in Florida law, are for the purpose of influencing only Florida elections.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas