TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly filed his paperwork for reelection on Friday after months of skirting state election law requirements and using his political committee to raise more than $53 million instead of launching a campaign.
The paperwork, which DeSantis called “a formality” at a news conference in Zephyrhills on Monday, allows the Republican governor to legally start running ads and conducting campaign rallies as a candidate on the 2022 ballot as soon as next week, when lawmakers convene for a special session to pursue his agenda fighting against COVID protocols mandated by employers and government entities.
“We’re not going to be doing really anything in terms of public announcements ‘till after the legislative session, but you know, you got to prepare for these things,’’ DeSantis said when a reporter asked him Monday when the formal announcement of his reelection candidacy will be.
The Florida Division of Elections lists 16 candidates for governor, including Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, former governor and current congressman Charlie Crist, and state Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami, the top three Democrats in the race.
Since August, when Florida’s steep summer-long surge in coronavirus cases started to decline, the governor has been conducting campaign-like news conferences multiple times a week in which he downplays the vaccine and gives voice and focus to opponents of vaccination and mask requirements.
At the same time, he has conducted a nationwide fundraising tour, raising money through his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. He has amassed hundreds of donations of $25 or less while also collecting dozens of five- and six-figure contributions, the majority of which are from out-of-state.
It’s a two-pronged political strategy that has helped DeSantis keep his name in circulation as a 2024 presidential contender while amassing a deep war chest for his reelection.
DeSantis’ recent actions
Using $244 million in federal aid, DeSantis this summer launched 25 monoclonal antibody treatment centers for people who test positive for COVID-19. He is one of the most vocal champions of the treatment.
He has called the Legislature together for a one-week special session starting on Nov. 15 to focus on vaccine and masking mandates. Instead of banning them in private businesses, the summary of legislation released by House and Senate leaders includes a host of bills aimed at imposing regulations on private employers who attempt to encourage employees to get vaccinated or wear masks in the workplace.
The legislation will also strengthen the ban on vaccine mandates in schools and governments by clarifying that it includes police and fire departments and gives parents a right to sue their local school district and recover costs and attorneys fees, the governor said.
“This will be probably the strongest protections for both private and public sector employees anywhere in the country,’’ DeSantis said at the new conference with House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson in Zephyrhills.
“We’ve never really had a situation where this was becoming such a flashpoint that basically an individual decision was really being used to determine whether someone could keep earning a paycheck or not, and so we really had to make sure that we were doing it right,’’ he said.
DeSantis, like many elected officials, has approached the public’s differing views on safety during the pandemic as a political issue.
At fundraisers and almost-daily press conferences, the governor says he is ready to fight President Joe Biden. Last week he announced again that he will be filing a lawsuit challenging the federal mandate for vaccines and testing on private employers.
In the last few months, as cases have declined in Florida, DeSantis also stopped promoting COVID vaccines and instead referred to them as “jabs” and “shots” that people should be protected from getting.
At many of his news conferences, he is surrounded by people who oppose getting the vaccine, who regret that they had to get one to keep their jobs or who object to having their child wear a mask at school.
“We’re going to be striking a blow for freedom. We’re going to be standing up against the Biden mandates, and we’re going to be better as a result of that,’’ DeSantis said.
His campaign’s soft launch
In late September, DeSantis appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and announced he was running for gubernatorial reelection, using the moment to deflect from talk that he is on course to run for president in 2024.
“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,” DeSantis said. “I’m going to be running for reelection next year.”
It was several more weeks before the governor officially signed the campaign documents on Friday, which requires releasing a financial disclosure, reporting campaign expenditures, and establishing a campaign treasurer. On Monday, the secretary of state’s website posted the documents filed by his attorney, Benjamin Gibson of Shutts & Bowen, including a statement that DeSantis’ first campaign report is due Dec. 10.
For the past year, DeSantis’ political committee has appeared to work in tandem with the governor’s office to coordinate fundraising pitches timed to press events he conducts in his official capacity.
Minutes after DeSantis sued the federal government over immigration, the governor’s political committee sent out a fundraising email. The same thing happened when he ordered Florida’s secretary of state to investigate Facebook, when he asked the Legislature to pass bills to give signing bonuses to out-of-state law enforcement who moved here, and in July, when DeSantis flew to Del Rio, Texas, on the state plane to co-host a news conference with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and criticize President Biden’s border policies.
Just last week, as DeSantis ramped up his criticism of public education, pursuing rules that ban mask and vaccine requirements in schools and universities, he attracted $200,000 in contributions from the DeVos family. The wealthy Michigan-based family of former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos advocates for the privatization of public schools.
Other top donors include Citadel hedge fund founder Kenneth Griffin, who has given DeSantis more than $5 million this election cycle, WeatherTech founder David MacNeil gave $500,000, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus gave $250,000, and former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner gave $250,000 in February after the state brought vaccines to the exclusive community of Ocean Reef in the Keys.
The committee as stand-in
The political committee has also served as a stand-in for the governor’s official campaign. 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-averse 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.”
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 a 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, but it must remain independent from a campaign.