The Republican Governors Association touts the return on investment it offers donors by spending smartly on races that can help extend Republican gubernatorial control to as many states as possible.
So far this year, though, the group has given the most money to an incumbent candidate sitting on the biggest pile of cash of any governor in the country: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
According to the group’s most recent financial filing, which covers the first half of 2022, Friends of Ron DeSantis, a political group supporting the governor’s reelection effort this year, was the single biggest recipient of cash from the Republican Governors Association, raking in $8.75 million in the first six months of 2022 — or roughly 1 out of every 4 dollars spent by the national Republican group in the first six months of the year.
And the association has continued to give to the DeSantis group, writing it another check for $2 million on July 26, according to Florida campaign finance records.
That is in addition to $6.6 million the association gave the DeSantis group in 2021 — bringing the two-year total from the association to $17.35 million.
The Washington, D.C.-based group exists to raise cash to support Republican gubernatorial candidates across the country. Currently, Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, and Pete Ricketts, the Republican governor of Nebraska, are the group’s co-chairpeople, and the organization regularly provides a much-needed cash boost to Republicans in competitive races across the country.
The group’s support for DeSantis comes as the two committees supporting DeSantis’ election bid have more than $115 million in the bank, according to the most recent Florida figures.
The two committees supporting his opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist, have just over $5 million in the bank, by comparison. And recent polls suggest that DeSantis holds a solid lead over Crist with voters.
Experts say that the group’s support for DeSantis could have more to do with his potential next election — he’s seen as a potential 2024 presidential contender — than his current gubernatorial race.
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of Open Secrets, which tracks money in politics, said that donors to groups like the Republican Governors Association could be motivated both by the possibility of establishing a relationship with DeSantis now — and their belief that a successful DeSantis presidential bid down the line would benefit governors in the future.
“Not only is it useful to have friends in high places, a win for their party at the presidential level would have waterfall effects that would benefit them at every level,” Krumholz said.
A windfall from Florida
In the first half of 2022, donors from Florida gave more to the Republican Governors Association than donors from any other state, helping propel the group to a record haul in the first half of the year, even accounting for inflation.
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While Florida donors have always been prolific givers to the group, it’s the first time donors from the state have accounted for the most Republican Governors Association cash. Texas and Washington, D.C., have typically been the biggest sources of funds for the group.
The list of top association donors this year includes several who have also supported DeSantis, including the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has written $2 million in checks to Friends of Ron DeSantis in the last two months.
The group declined to discuss the specific contributions and whether the Republican Governors Association cash was aimed at supporting DeSantis.
“The Seminole Tribe doesn’t comment on reports of specific campaign contributions,” the group said in a statement. “In general, the Tribe does contribute to issues and candidates in Florida and other states, according to its best interests.”
Nevada real estate and space magnate Robert Bigelow and an associated company gave more than $3.3 million combined to the association in January and June, and he wrote a $10 million check to Friends of Ron DeSantis in July.
Bigelow declined to answer questions from the Miami Herald about his contributions and whether they were intended to support DeSantis or other gubernatorial candidates he is backing this year.
Taking care of business interests
One top association donor from Florida, Dragos Sprinceana, said that he wasn’t surprised that the group has given so much to DeSantis, whom he described as “a flagship” Republican governor, but that his $50,000 check to the group wasn’t intended to solely support the Florida governor.
Sprinceana, who lives in Boca Raton, owns the Illinois-based transportation company GoldCoast Logistics and said that, while he supports DeSantis, his contribution was focused on supporting Republican governors across the country who he believes have the best policies for businesses.
“It had nothing to do with DeSantis,” he said. “My company is nationwide. It not only helps me in Florida, but it helps me to support governors who support small businesses.”
DeSantis has not served on the Republican Governors Association’s leadership team during his time as Florida governor, but he does boast one significant tie to the organization: The group’s former executive director, Phil Cox, is one of DeSantis’ top campaign advisers.
The association didn’t say whether it had any arrangement with the DeSantis campaign to share a portion of funds DeSantis brings in, or whether it will spend more money in Florida.
“Florida has seen incredible growth and success under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ leadership,” said association spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez. “The RGA is proud to support his reelection campaign and will ensure he has the resources necessary to share his record with voters as he asks for their vote in November.”
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Can there be carryover cash for a 2024 presidential run?
There’s been some thinking that, if DeSantis wins reelection, anything left over in his accounts could be used to help fund a presidential run down the line.
Campaign finance experts say it isn’t so simple.
“You cannot repurpose state campaign money to federal campaigns,” said Adav Noti, legal director of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for enforcing campaign finance laws, and a former Federal Election Commission lawyer.
But the DeSantis group could potentially transfer the money to political nonprofits or super PACs that could boost DeSantis’ profile, even if not directly benefiting a potential 2024 run.
And the Federal Election Commission’s current structure, with half of the group’s commissioners Democrats and the other half Republicans, means that even if the group takes an approach that exists in a campaign finance gray area — or even violates campaign finance rules — it likely won’t face consequences from the commission.
“The federal commission is effectively defunct as a law enforcement agency,” Noti said.