DeSantis pitches outsider campaign, relies on Florida insider cash

DeSantis’ campaign got heavy financial support from Tallahassee lobbyists, staffers and government contractors.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis thanks attendees after the conclusion of his press stop, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at Iowa River Power Restaurant in Iowa City, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis thanks attendees after the conclusion of his press stop, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, at Iowa River Power Restaurant in Iowa City, Iowa. [ GEOFF STELLFOX | AP ]
Published Aug. 21, 2023

While Gov. Ron DeSantis travels the country, painstakingly checking off each of Iowa’s 99 counties to try to expand his appeal, he’s received outsize support from a place much closer to home: the mid-size Florida city where he both governs with an iron grip and has built a political machine.

Roughly half a million dollars in campaign cash flowed to DeSantis’ political operation from Tallahassee through June, buoyed by contributions from lobbyists, staffers in his office and businesses that receive millions in taxpayer-funded government contracts. Six leaders of state agencies, all directly appointed or recommended by the governor, also gave. This total includes money given to both DeSantis’ campaign and a supportive super PAC.

While the full-throated financial support from the center of DeSantis’ power is not unexpected, it underscores how much he has leaned on Florida, sometimes prompting questions about the scalability of his campaign. The money also comes after several instances of DeSantis or his staff blurring the lines between his official and political operations.

Earlier this year, top aides in the governor’s office asked lobbyists to open up their checkbooks for the campaign when DeSantis still was considering the budget and could veto items sought by their clients. Three staffers laid off from his campaign have since been hired by the state of Florida, according to Axios, while DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, is taking a leave of absence from state government to serve as the new campaign manager.

Donors in Tallahassee gave more money to DeSantis’ campaign committee than the totals for every other city in the country except New York City, despite Tallahassee’s population being about 2% the size of the Big Apple, a Tampa Bay Times analysis of federal campaign finance records show. Florida’s capital surpassed the much more populous cities of Dallas and Tampa, as well as Newport Beach, California — where DeSantis has held several fundraisers.

DeSantis’ campaign received at least $30,000 from employees in his administration, with about half of the donations coming in the week that he officially announced his candidacy. The staff of the governor’s office donated more than any other agency. Top advisers like public safety czar Larry Keefe, press secretary Jeremy Redfern and Uthmeier contributed.

On the campaign trail, DeSantis has hammered “failed elites” and the federal bureaucracy, and contrasted himself with former President Donald Trump by saying Trump failed to “drain the swamp.”

“We drained the swamp in here,” DeSantis told Fox News last week about his accomplishments in Florida.

The campaign didn’t respond to emails requesting comment. Redfern, the spokesperson for the governor’s office, said his donation “as a private citizen is my First Amendment right.”

“I believe in what Gov. DeSantis is doing and what he is fighting for, and my support outside of the Executive Office stands as a testament to his leadership,” he said.

State lawmakers threw in more than $27,000. Tallahassee lobbyists gave at least $250,000. That number doesn’t include additional donations lobbyists elicited from their clients to the governor’s campaign.

In the past, DeSantis’ team has discussed specific target amounts for individual lobbyists to raise from their clients, according to a recent Washington Post story about DeSantis’ 2019 political team. A document obtained by the Post said the team talked about applying “pressure” if lobbyists did not meet those amounts.

Top leaders from companies that signed contracts with Florida state government gave more than $230,000 to DeSantis’ campaign and a pro-DeSantis super PAC, according to a Times analysis.

Ben Wilcox, research director and co-founder of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan government watchdog in Tallahassee, said those checks are probably not purely altruistic.

“When these companies are making contributions to campaigns they’re not doing it in the interest of good government. They’re hoping their contributions will in some way help them — help their bottom line,” he said.

At least 10 employees at prominent Florida law firm GrayRobinson, including its chief executive, gave the DeSantis campaign a total of more than $20,000. The DeSantis administration has signed contracts with GrayRobinson for more than $10 million for legal services in the past several years, public records show, including for defending the governor over his suspension of ousted Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. GrayRobinson has for years donated to Florida politicians of both parties through its firm and a state political committee.

Several lawyers from another major law firm, Cooper & Kirk, maxed out their giving limit with $6,600 checks (half of which must be set aside for the general election). That firm has contracted with the state for more than $7 million since DeSantis took office, representing Florida in lawsuits including one over a law requiring felons to pay off their legal debts before they can vote, and another over the law regulating how racial history may be taught in classrooms. One of the firm’s partners is Adam Laxalt, the former Nevada attorney general and a close friend of DeSantis’ from when they roomed together at Naval Training School.

Charles Cooper, the chairperson and founding partner of Cooper & Kirk, said in an email that he’s been “a vocal supporter of Gov. DeSantis, financial and otherwise,” since DeSantis was in Congress, where he served from 2013 to 2018.

“My firm’s professional relationship with Florida dates back to Gov. Jeb Bush’s time, and my financial support of Gov. DeSantis’ campaign has nothing to do with my firm’s professional relationship with the State and its agencies — at either end,” he wrote.

Alan Lawson, a former Florida Supreme Court justice who retired last year, also gave the campaign $3,300. His new law firm has signed more than $1.6 million in agreements with Florida for legal services. Lawson didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

The Orlando Magic has three now-expired contracts with the DeSantis administration adding up to more than $430,000, for things like promoting public service announcements from the Department of Highway Safety. The chairperson of the team is Dan DeVos, brother-in-law of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. It gave $50,000 to the pro-DeSantis super PAC.

Mike Vasilinda Productions Inc., a company named after and owned by a longtime fixture of the Tallahassee press corps, also donated $5,000 to the DeSantis super PAC in May. It’s signed $4.1 million in contracts with the state of Florida during DeSantis’ tenure for providing broadcast equipment and staff for live lottery drawings. Vasilinda announced his retirement from reporting in April.

Times data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.