TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis may be playing coy about his presidential intentions, but a new super PAC has been formed to give oxygen to the idea and serve as his surrogate campaign until the Florida governor makes it official.
“Ron to the Rescue,” is the name of the independent political action committee being organized by California political strategist John Thomas, a Trump supporter who is shifting his backing to DeSantis because he says he is “the future of the party.”
“As much as people in the party still like Trump, they like winning more,’’ said Thomas, the founder and president of the political advertising and consulting firm Thomas Partners Strategies.
He acknowledged the move will be perceived as adding fuel to the growing feud within the Republican Party between Trump and his base and a growing group of big-money donors and party leaders who want DeSantis to run. But, Thomas said, the catalyst for the effort was the poor performance of Trump-backed candidates in Tuesday’s mid-term elections.
“If you’re a Trump supporter, I think it’s fair to say that Trump was not a net positive,’’ in the mid-term elections, Thomas said in an interview Saturday. “He added no value to general election candidates in these different states, and perhaps, at worst, he pulled them down.”
The announcement of the super PAC comes just days before Trump has planned a “major announcement” at his Palm Beach mansion, Mar-a-Lago, on Tuesday. He is widely expected to officially announce his re-election for president in 2024 and has signaled he sees DeSantis as his primary rival.
Last Thursday, Trump unleashed a tirade against DeSantis, calling him an “average Republican governor with great public relations” and accused him of “playing games” over a potential future presidential bid.
Thomas said Trump’s early attack on DeSantis is “par for the course” from a candidate who has “never minded attacking down.” But, Thomas said, for Trump who “had expected a coronation, this is an admission that he thinks the governor is a political threat.”
Provoked by midterm losses
Thomas said he originally organized the super PAC last summer because he saw DeSantis as the party’s fresh rising star. But, after the Department of Justice raid on Mar-a-Lago over classified documents and the surge of support for Trump, he decided to pause plans for the super PAC and urge DeSantis to wait to run for president until 2028.
He said he gave himself one condition, however, that he would reconsider if the midterms showed that Trump’s support was waning among the Republican base. On Wednesday morning, he said his phone “was blowing up” with Trump supporters angry and frustrated by Tuesday’s mid-term elections.
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But unlike earlier in the year, the coalition emerging in support of DeSantis last week was broader, Thomas said.
“What was really surprising about it was not just the original people who were pro-DeSantis, but our group was getting populated with people that are kind of like myself. We’re not ‘Never Trumpers.’ We’re actually quite pro Trump. We just want to win.”
Thomas said he expects to announce the list of donors in the next two weeks, launch with a seven-figure budget, raise unlimited sums of money from corporations and individuals, conduct polling and handle media inquiries until DeSantis officially opens a presidential campaign. He hopes that will happen after DeSantis’ inauguration in January 2023.
Under federal campaign finance law, super PACs are not permitted to contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates. But Thomas said he is “in pretty close contact with folks in his campaign even though this is not sanctioned by them.”
The DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment. The governor raised nearly $200 million in his governor’s race, as he used his growing national celebrity to raise money across the country. He is expected to have as much as $70 million remaining that he could shift into a federal campaign.
GOP ‘civil war’ coming
Thomas said he expects a Trump versus DeSantis rivalry will “get nasty” as the former president demands loyalty from supporters while many in the party want to move away from him.
“It’s going to become a civil war, and that’s inevitable. Trump is not going to go quietly into the night,’’ he said. “The former president is known to be vindictive against people who defy him. But the time has come to pass the gavel and it’s very clear that DeSantis is the one who can win and the former president is not.”
He noted that DeSantis’ commanding victory in Florida “turning Florida from a swing state to a red state just happened to sweeten the pot” but it was not the deciding factor in reviving the political committee.
“We think DeSantis is the future of the party who can put together the coalitions necessary, particularly with college-educated white women, Latinos and these critical groups,’’ he said.
He cited a poll taken after the election by YouGov America, that showed DeSantis with a seven-point lead over Trump among GOP voters nationwide in a 2024 primary matchup.
Thomas said DeSantis now must separate himself from Trump while assuring his supporters he is not betraying the movement.
“Breaking up from Trump is like ending a dysfunctional relationship,’’ he said. “You still love the significant other but you realize it might be time to move on.”
While Trump may have “made DeSantis,’’ the governor has used his perch as head of the nation’s third most populous state to execute COVID policies that were more popular than Trump’s, Thomas said.
Thomas said his organization will “lay the breadcrumbs” for him by commending Trump for having a “spine of steel, for having refocused the agenda of the Republican Party electorate and appointed a bunch of good judges, etc. But we need to be appreciating him as the party elder, and less of a party leader. While we’re very thankful for Trump’s service, it’s time to move on.”
Thomas joins several political consultants in suggesting that DeSantis will have to make an announcement sooner than he may want in order to mitigate the impact of Trump’s attack and to win over the MAGA base.
“The risk he runs is that the Republican base licks their wounds and forgets what happened in the mid-terms and just gets behind the media frenzy that Trump creates,” he said.