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DeSantis gets big check as part of surge in giving from GOP megadonor

Real estate mogul and UFO believer Robert Bigelow gave $10 million to Florida’s DeSantis.
Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference at The Rosen Shingle Creek on Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando.
Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference at The Rosen Shingle Creek on Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published Oct. 3|Updated Oct. 3

Nevada real estate magnate Robert Bigelow has a history of putting his considerable wealth behind causes in which he believes.

He poured hundreds of millions of dollars into his private space company Bigelow Aerospace, which manufactured inflatable space dwellings used by NASA at the International Space Station.

And he’s also spent millions on work looking into UFOs and the afterlife.

But in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the burgeoning megadonor has made his biggest political bet to date.

He gave $10 million in July to a political group supporting the Florida governor’s reelection — nearly half of the $19.2 million he has spent this year and last, largely to support Republican governors.

That includes $3.3 million that he and one of his companies gave to the Republican Governors Association this year — making him the group’s top backer in the first six months of the year — $5.7 million he spent this year and last in support of Nevada’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Joseph Lombardo, and $50,000 he gave to a federal committee supporting South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Notably, both DeSantis and Noem have been discussed as potential 2024 Republican running mates for former Republican President Donald Trump — or rivals.

That giving puts Bigelow in the upper echelon of all political donors, though still well below Republican bankrollers such as hedge fund honcho Ken Griffin and shipping supplies magnate Dick Uihlein — both of whom have also previously backed DeSantis — and Democrat cash men such as billionaire financier George Soros and cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.

It isn’t clear whether Bigelow’s done giving yet. He has spent heavily in the past to support his areas of interest. He and his wife, Diane, endowed a Consciousness Studies chair at the University of Nevada Las Vegas with a $3.7 million donation in 1997, and after Diane’s death in early 2020, Bigelow put $1 million behind a prize for research into the afterlife.

And he says that he poured $350 million of his own money into Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow’s recent burst of political giving comes at a moment when there’s no clear top Republican megadonor after the 2021 death of Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Bigelow declined to speak with the Herald and didn’t respond to a series of questions, including how much he plans to spend and whether his giving so far indicates that he hopes DeSantis or Noem will run in the 2024 presidential election instead of Trump.

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He recently told the New York Times that he was drawn to DeSantis by what he had seen of the governor on the news, particularly DeSantis’ fight with Disney over the company’s opposition to some of his policies, including the so-called “don’t say gay” bill limiting what schools could say about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Related: Ron DeSantis' fight with Disney helped him break fundraising records

Bigelow told the Times that he wasn’t even aware that DeSantis faced reelection this year but that his contribution was intended to, “early on, contribute to the man and pay him that respect.”

Bigelow said that DeSantis paid him a three-hour visit in Nevada the day Bigelow made his $10 million contribution and toured the Bigelow Aerospace facility — despite indications the company is currently defunct after it laid off all employees earlier in the pandemic.

He previously told the Associated Press that DeSantis reminded him of former President Ronald Reagan — who famously also tangled with educational institutions as a governor, in his case the University of California system.

Bigelow’s business portfolio

Bigelow made his fortune through a real estate portfolio that includes the extended stay apartment chain Budget Suites of America, which has properties in Nevada, Arizona and Texas. He used that wealth to fund operations of Bigelow Aerospace.

The pandemic presented challenges for both of his businesses. Budget Suites of America has fought pandemic-related eviction moratoriums in local courts, while Bigelow Aerospace laid off all of its employees in 2020 after mandatory COVID-19 closures early in the pandemic and doesn’t appear to have hired them back.

In March 2021, Bigelow Aerospace sued NASA, claiming the federal space agency owed the company more than $1 million for a contract to perform leak tests on a prototype of one of its inflatable space stations, but the suit was thrown out earlier this year.

Bigelow singled out DeSantis’ approach to COVID-19 restrictions — Florida lifted them earlier than many other states — as one of the things that attracted him to the governor.

It isn’t clear whether Bigelow has any financial motivations to contribute to DeSantis. Budget Suites of America doesn’t have any locations in Florida, and while Bigelow Aerospace signed a 2011 memorandum of understanding with Space Florida, a state agency that promotes space-related economic activity, the agreement expired years ago and Bigelow’s company never got paid a penny by the agency, according to Space Florida spokesperson Dale Ketcham.

Bob Beers, a Republican former Nevada state senator and legislator, said of Bigelow that “80% of the things that typically separate Democrats and Republicans, he [falls] on Republican grounds.”

Beers, who was himself the recipient of $75,000 in support from Bigelow during a failed bid for governor in 2006, described Bigelow as, “like George Soros but with common sense.”

Bigelow has historically given primarily to candidates and measures in his home state of Nevada.

Giving to both parties

That includes some Democrats.

Most notably, Bigelow wrote several checks backing former Nevada senator and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Bigelow, his companies and his wife, Diane, donated a combined $27,600 to committees backing Reid ahead of his 2004 and 2010 elections.

Bigelow also gave $87,000 combined to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee between 2007 and 2011, when Reid was the Senate majority leader. Beers suggested that Bigelow and Reid might have found common ground because both grew up in Nevada in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Old Vegas totally transcends political parties,” Beers said. “People who were here 80 years ago and have essentially been the backbone of what’s happened here over the past 50 years — many of them went to high school and college together and have relationships far deeper than party affiliation.”

Bigelow counts one of Nevada’s most influential Republicans among his high-school classmates: Sig Rogich, who worked on the presidential campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both Republicans, and was appointed ambassador to Iceland by Bush.

Rogich declined to speak about his relationship with Bigelow and Bigelow’s recent increased giving, saying that he hadn’t spoken with Bigelow in months.

Reid and Bigelow had met years earlier in a secret group Bigelow had convened focused on Bigelow’s twin obsessions: UFOs and the afterlife, Politico reported last year.

Reid would ultimately push for the Pentagon to create a secret program to study UFOs, which began in 2007, the same year Bigelow cut his first of three big checks to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

A Bigelow company was reportedly intimately involved in the program.

Bigelow’s transactional giving also meant that he had previously given money to support a Democrat he is now furiously spending to try to defeat: Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak.

While Bigelow has spent nearly $6 million on efforts to defeat Sisolak’s reelection bid, two companies tied to Bigelow wrote Sisolak checks for just under $20,000 in 2011, a year before Sisolak was up for reelection.


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