There once was a Florida fund-raising committee called Friends of Ron DeSantis, which was overflowing with the $142 million it had raised. Mr. DeSantis used it personally for his campaign to be re-elected governor of Florida in 2022, but that was far more than he needed for that race, and when he was done he still had $86 million left over.
But one day that committee disappeared. In fact, it was on May 15, just nine days before Mr. DeSantis announced that he was running for president. In paperwork filed that day, the committee changed its name to Empower Parents PAC and the governor’s name appears nowhere on the website’s home page. And just as that filing was made, the super PAC that is supporting Mr. DeSantis’s presidential ambitions said that it would be getting more than $80 million in leftover money transferred from Empower Parents.
That transfer represents a new frontier in the long-running battle to undermine presidential campaign finance laws. And it is only one example of the many ways in which Mr. DeSantis, in particular, has tried to make a mockery of those laws. If you want a preview of how Mr. DeSantis views the government’s limits on power and plutocracy — as feeble as they are already — there’s no better place to look than his campaign.
There’s a reason that state political committees can’t just transfer their money into presidential super PACs. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which led to the creation of super PACs, said plainly that those committees had to be independent of a candidate’s campaign in order to receive unlimited contributions.
But Friends of Ron DeSantis, as a state committee, was never independent of its namesake. He signed the paperwork to set it up in 2018, and listed himself as the person to solicit and accept all of its contributions. That was true until May 5 of this year, when he filed another official letter with the state saying that he was no longer soliciting or accepting contributions.
The state committee had already become something of a slush fund for donors who wanted to help Mr. DeSantis’s long-term ambitions, which were never well disguised. Consider this: Mr. DeSantis was re-elected on Nov. 8, and is prevented by law from running for a third consecutive term. But the committee took in more than $15 million after the election. Why, for example, would Gregory P. Cook, whose essential-oils company, doTERRA, received a warning letter in 2020 and a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission for making false claims about preventing Covid, donate $1.3 million to Friends of Ron DeSantis on Feb. 22 of this year? Is it possible that he might want better treatment from a DeSantis presidency?
The State of Florida certainly knew it was wrong to transfer money from a state campaign fund to a federal one. Since at least 2016, the biennial handbook issued by the Florida Division of Elections had expressly prohibited that move. “A Florida political committee must use its funds solely for Florida political activities,” the handbook said. But as NBC News reported, the DeSantis administration quietly deleted that wording, and this year’s version of the handbook conveniently says for the first time that such transfers are allowed. The new handbook bases its reasoning on the Citizens United decision — which of course had been in effect for 13 years, including when the handbook prohibited the move.
The Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group that closely monitors these kinds of transactions, has filed a complaint against the DeSantis campaign with the Federal Election Commission, saying the transfer is illegal. But as Team DeSantis knows, the commission has deadlocked so often — with three Republicans countering three Democrats — that it has become toothless. In a similar but smaller case last year when a Republican member of the House tried to transfer state campaign funds, the commission refused to take action after the usual 3-to-3 vote.
The transfer is only one of the ways Mr. DeSantis is pushing the limits of the campaign finance system. The super PAC supporting his presidential run, bearing the schoolboy name of “Never Back Down,” has made it clear that it has a dangerously broad view of what its role should be.
Up to now, the main role of super PACs in elections has been to run TV ads in favor of a candidate or against an opponent, with an unconvincing disclaimer in small print at the end that the ad sponsor is not associated with any campaign or candidate. Super PACs can take in contributions of unlimited size, so they’ve been a great vehicle for wealthy donors, unions and corporations to demonstrate loyalty to a candidate without bumping up against the $3,300 individual donation limit per election for giving directly to a campaign.
Those ads are bad enough, but Never Back Down is going much further by essentially taking over many of the main functions of the DeSantis campaign itself. As The Washington Post recently reported, the super PAC is opening office space in each of the early primary states, organizing a corps of door-knockers and volunteers, and launching a “Students for DeSantis” effort on university campuses, among other grass-roots organizing work. “This is going to be expansive and a completely different kind of super PAC,” Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer of Never Back Down, told The Post.
The Times reported that Never Back Down is preparing to spend more than $100 million on the DeSantis field operation, hiring 2,600 workers by Labor Day to “knock on the door of every possible DeSantis voter at least four times in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and five times in the kickoff Iowa caucuses.” The report quoted another leader of the super PAC as saying that no one had ever tried an effort like this before.
One reason for that may be its dubious legality. No definition of a super PAC — technically defined as an “independent expenditure committee” (emphasis added) — can conceivably include that much detailed organizing work on behalf of a candidate, and it is impossible to imagine it can be done without silently coordinating with the “real” DeSantis campaign. By having wealthy donors, some of whom make multimillion-dollar contributions, pay for such fieldwork, the campaign can spend more money on things that only it can do, such as transporting the candidate and getting on 50 state ballots. That’s why donations given directly to a campaign, known as “hard money,” are much more valuable to a candidate, as well as being harder to raise because of the contribution limits.
But as Mr. DeSantis has demonstrated repeatedly in Florida, he’ll just blow past the guardrails of the law if it suits his purposes. In his latest attempt to shatter the concept of independence, his super PAC has been put to work raising money directly for Mr. DeSantis’s campaign.
Before the governor’s official announcement last month, Never Back Down raised $500,000 in hard money for a “draft committee,” all of which was to be transferred directly to the campaign once it became official, CBS News reported. For the draft committee, the super PAC limited contributions to the $3,300 limit, but by doing the work of fund-raising, and using its list of donors, the super PAC was in essence making a huge but unreported contribution to the campaign. One campaign finance expert described this effort by the super PAC as “unprecedented.”
And the closeness between Never Back Down and the campaign continues to this moment. If you go to Never Back Down’s website, and click on the big red “donate” button at the top, it takes you to a page that collects donations for the campaign, not the super PAC.
“This is effectively a huge in-kind gift to DeSantis’s campaign and will subsidize his fund-raising costs considerably, which is exactly the sort of role a super PAC should not be allowed to play,” said Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center.
On top of all that, the governor’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, was used as one of the presidential campaign’s biggest fund-raisers, as NBC News reported Thursday. Breaching any ethical barrier between public service and politics, Mr. Uthmeier had administration officials around Florida pressure lobbyists to contribute to Mr. DeSantis’s campaign.
Mr. DeSantis is hardly the only politician in the race who has demonstrated contempt for basic ethics and campaign finance laws. Donald Trump has funneled money from his leadership PAC to his super PAC, a different kind of abuse that has also drawn a complaint before the F.E.C. But Mr. DeSantis’s actions are pathbreaking in an unusually wanton and disdainful way. If that path should lead to the White House, it’s clear that big money will have a welcome place in American politics under his administration.
Image Credits: Damon Winter/The New York Times