Could DeSantis use $86 million of state campaign money to run for president?

Probably yes, but some campaign watchdogs question such a move.
Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference Tuesday. His recent campaign finance moves hint at a run for higher office.
Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference Tuesday. His recent campaign finance moves hint at a run for higher office. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published May 11|Updated May 12

A state committee supporting Ron DeSantis raised more than $225 million from 2018 through April of this year.

DeSantis did not need $225 million to win his two statewide campaigns for governor — not even close. As of April 30, that committee was sitting on some $86 million.

Could DeSantis use that extra money to aid his expected run for president? It’s possible but unprecedented, campaign watchdogs say.

“I don’t think anyone has tried to transfer this kind of money,” said Saurav Ghosh, the director of federal campaign finance reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

It’s not clear DeSantis will try to move the money from his state committee to groups aiding his anticipated run for the White House. A political spokesperson didn’t respond to requests for comment.

But Ghosh said he expects him to.

“For a long time, people knew or strongly suspected that (DeSantis) was going to run for president,” Ghosh said. “They were giving very large contributions to this state (committee), and I think it was no secret that their intention was not to finance his state reelection. I think the clear understanding was that this money was to support his presidential aspirations.”

If DeSantis’ team moves his cash around, there’s a super PAC waiting for it. Never Back Down, an independent expenditure committee supporting a DeSantis White House run, said last week it had raised some $33 million. DeSantis’ political allies launched it in February.

Ghosh argued that federal law forbids a candidate from using state committee money to fund a super PAC. Although super PACs are supposed to be independent of and separated from candidates’ campaigns, they rarely are in practice, Ghosh said. Transferring state political committee money to a super PAC is tantamount to allowing unlimited direct campaign contributions, which federal law prohibits, he said.

But the current Federal Election Commission hasn’t been receptive to that argument, noted Daniel Weiner of NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

When now-U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds transferred more than $100,000 from a state committee to a super PAC — which then spent thousands on ads supporting his run for Congress — The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint against Donalds.

Federal regulators deadlocked on whether to crack down on the transfer. No action was taken.

“I would imagine that Gov. Desantis and his lawyers have concluded based on that deadlocked decision that they have grounds to move forward,” Weiner said. He’s the director of the Brennan Center’s elections and government program.

This week, DeSantis cut ties with the state committee, ceding control of Friends of Ron DeSantis to an ally, state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill. That move signals his impending federal candidacy, and could pave the way for the money to be shifted to a super PAC supporting his presidential run.

In April, donations to that committee dropped off compared to prior months. Friends of Ron DeSantis raised about $162,000 last month, compared with about $10 million in February and about $3.7 million in March.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Instead, the Never Back Down PAC appears to be the primary place where pro-DeSantis donors have been turning in recent weeks. Although DeSantis can’t legally coordinate the super PAC’s spending, the ads produced by the group have done the bulk of DeSantis’ presidential campaigning thus far. One spot introduced DeSantis to voters in key early primary states; others bashed Donald Trump, DeSantis’ expected chief rival for the 2024 Republican nomination.

Once DeSantis officially declares his candidacy, he’ll have to set up a campaign committee with individual contribution limits, then report those contributions quarterly. Campaign committees have already been set up for Trump and other announced GOP presidential contenders, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

DeSantis is the only person in the top five of RealClearPolitics’ polling averages who has a super PAC backing him but who has yet to officially declare his candidacy. (A super PAC backing former Vice President Mike Pence is expected to launch later this month.)

That means the public won’t know some of DeSantis’ political donors until July 31, when Never Back Down has to file its semiannual expenditure report.

Weiner said the entire arrangement in which DeSantis’ allies can raise money to support him before he declares his candidacy is another example of how super PACs are hardly independent entities.

“It upends the whole system that we supposedly have for how candidates run for office,” Weiner said of the arrangement.