Advertisement

Pro-DeSantis super PAC buoyed by billionaires, new records show

But some well-known donors who fueled DeSantis’ victories for governor are notably absent.
 
Yard signs promoting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2024, financed by the super PAC promoting DeSantis for president, line the street leading up to a Republican congressional fundraiser on May 13 in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Yard signs promoting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2024, financed by the super PAC promoting DeSantis for president, line the street leading up to a Republican congressional fundraiser on May 13 in Sioux Center, Iowa. [ TOM BEAUMONT | AP ]
Published Aug. 1, 2023|Updated Aug. 1, 2023

Billionaires are fueling the effort to put Ron DeSantis on the presidential election ballot, new records show.

Never Back Down, the super PAC dedicated to sending Florida’s governor to the White House, raised $48 million in the first half of this year on the backs of familiar tycoons, many of whom had already funded his political ascent. The super PAC’s total was more than double the size of DeSantis’ official campaign haul.

The $48 million raised rests on top of $82.5 million transferred from DeSantis’ state fundraising committee, granting Never Back Down about $130 million to work with in the first six months of the year. It has spent nearly $34 million so far, leaving about $97 million in cash on hand.

The group filed new paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Monday night that detailed its contributions and spending through June 30. The super PAC’s substantial funds will likely be a crucial lifeline for DeSantis in the tough months leading up to next year’s early-state primaries, particularly as his campaign has faced questions about its financial viability.

Unlike official campaigns, super PACs can legally accept unlimited donations, making them the preferred vehicle for megadonors to pour in funds. Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating with the campaign, though those distinctions are often murky, particularly in DeSantis’ case. Never Back Down has taken on responsibilities typically shouldered by campaigns, such as coordinating a massive door-knocking effort using paid canvassers, rather than volunteers.

In DeSantis’ official campaign account, only 15% of the total raised came from small-dollar donors (those giving less than $200) — meaning that the entire political operation supporting the governor remains heavily reliant on wealthy individuals.

Far and away the biggest backer of DeSantis’ presidential ambitions is Robert Bigelow — a Las Vegas real estate and aerospace magnate with well-known interests in UFOs and the afterlife — who wrote a check for more than $20 million to Never Back Down in March. Shipping moguls Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, longtime DeSantis supporters, collectively contributed $2 million. California venture capitalist Douglas Leone also gave $2 million, as did Stefan Brodie, the founder of a Pennsylvania chemical company who now lives on the ultra-rich Fisher Island near Miami Beach.

Other notable contributors include the Orlando Magic, which gave $50,000 in June. Dan DeVos, brother-in-law to former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is the chairperson of the basketball team.

Edward DeBartolo Jr. — the ex-owner of the San Francisco 49ers who was pardoned by former President Donald Trump after pleading guilty to not reporting a crime in a Louisiana corruption case — also gave DeSantis $250,000. DeBartolo lives in Tampa and is the father-in-law of Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Four Daytona Beach companies run by homebuilder and well-connected donor Mori Hosseini each wrote a check on June 1, totaling $1 million. Hosseini and his businesses had already given more than $100,000 to DeSantis’ state political committee before the governor re-appointed him to the University of Florida Board of Trustees in 2021. Hosseini also loaned a golf simulator to the Governor’s Mansion and benefitted from the DeSantis administration steering millions in leftover coronavirus stimulus funds to a road project, according to the Washington Post.

Founded in late February, the super PAC spent an average of $1.8 million a week. Its deep coffers meant it could spend even more aggressively than DeSantis’ troubled official campaign, which spent $1.5 million a week for its first month and a half, despite having millions less in its account to start. Amid its money problems, the campaign laid off more than a third of its staff last month as part of a larger overhaul.

Some high-profile backers of the governor in the past were notably absent in the super PAC’s filing.

Ken Griffin, for example, who previously gave DeSantis more than $10 million over his two elections for governor ― making him his single-biggest individual donor over both elections — was not listed as a contributor. Despite moving the headquarters of his investment firm from Chicago to Miami last year, Griffin is reportedly waiting to place his bets in the 2024 race for the Republican nomination. He previously said the GOP should move on from Trump.

Also absent were Ike and Laura Perlmutter, who collectively gave more than $2.5 million to DeSantis’ races for governor and let DeSantis use their private plane in 2018. But the Perlmutters are throwing their weight behind Trump, according to CNBC. Ike Perlmutter is the former chairperson of Marvel Entertainment at Disney, though The Wall Street Journal has reported that he agreed with DeSantis in the governor’s feud with the entertainment giant.

Paul Tudor Jones II, a billionaire hedge fund manager who lives in Palm Beach and had given DeSantis checks worth more than $1 million for his Florida campaigns, was also not listed.

Since officially entering the race in May, DeSantis has struggled to chip away at Trump’s commanding lead in polls. That fact combined with his hard-right policy positions, particularly on abortion, have prompted concerns among some Republican donors.

Still, the fundraising total is a bright spot for the governor. Never Back Down’s $130 million dwarfs the outside money supporting other Republican challengers to Trump. DeSantis’ official campaign also raised $20 million since its launch, he reported last month.

And Trump’s Make America Great Again Inc. super PAC raised just $13 million in 2023, to go with about $54 million brought in through a joint fundraising committee. These groups have spent millions of his political contributions to cover legal fees as he faces multiple criminal indictments.

• • •

Test your knowledge: How well do you know Ron DeSantis? A quiz.

Catch up on coverage: Read these 11 essential Ron DeSantis stories from his hometown paper

Video: Three moments that made Ron DeSantis a national figure

The first lady: Casey DeSantis: The ‘X-factor’ in Florida governor’s inner circle