‘De facto frontrunner’: DeSantis’ $200 million haul positions him for 2024 run

‘De facto frontrunner’: DeSantis’ $200 million haul positions him for 2024 run

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — After personally receiving a $10 million check from real estate mogul Robert Bigelow in Las Vegas in July, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was so astounded by the huge donation that he held onto the check during his long return flight to Florida.

Once he landed, DeSantis told a member of his finance team to drive the check to the Tampa offices of Robert and Nancy Watkins, who serve as chair and treasurer for his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, according to three people familiar with the story.

In giving DeSantis $10 million, Bigelow, who owns Budget Suites of America, wrote the largest single campaign check in Florida political history — but it’s just a fraction of the overall record-shattering haul DeSantis has raised during the 2022 cycle.

Between his direct campaign and the aligned political committee, donors big and small have given DeSantis more than $200 million for his reelection bid, a staggering sum that is likely the most raised by any gubernatorial candidate in American history.

DeSantis has used the avalanche of cash to bury Democratic opponent Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor whose $31 million raised would put him in good shape in most competitive governor’s races across the country. But against DeSantis, Crist’s $31 million left him unable to adequately compete.

DeSantis has more than $90 million remaining in the bank after spending about $100 million total this election cycle on his reelection bid via his aligned committee and campaign. That huge sum is fueling speculation that the Florida governor, who cannot run for a third term, will use it to seed the early stages of a potential 2024 bid for the White House.

“If you look at where the money is coming from, it’s indicative of Gov. DeSantis being seen by national donors as the de facto frontrunner for president,” said Slater Bayliss, a longtime Florida Republican lobbyist who supports DeSantis.

DeSantis’ campaign, which also speaks for the aligned committee, did not return a request seeking comment.

Beyond the $10 million check from Bigelow, who did not return a request seeking comment, DeSantis received two $5 million checks from investor Ken Griffin, who recently moved his hedge fund Citadel LLC from Chicago to Miami. The Republican Governors Association also gave DeSantis $20 million and the Florida governor got $3 million from state taxpayers as part of Florida’s public campaign financing program. Those four alone gave his campaign more cash than Crist was able to raise during the entire election cycle. Crist is also considered one of Florida’s best political fundraisers.

DeSantis’ politics and get-it-done governing style, coupled with national donors starting to gravitate toward DeSantis over former President Donald Trump, has sparked national interest from both large GOP donors and grassroots-type small-dollar contributors to give to the Republican governor, Bayliss said.

“I think people on the left do not think their candidates sell out, and on the right we think ours cut deals, and are more pragmatic,” he said. “Former President Trump’s whole brand on the Republican side was that he does not sell out.”

“Gov. DeSantis has built on that,” he added, “And is taken more seriously by many Republican donors.”

Other governors who have taken in massive hauls in recent election cycles include self-financers like Meg Whitman, whose $176 million during the 2010 California gubernatorial campaign included $144 million of her own money. Illinois Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker nearly entirely self-funded his $176 million 2018 campaign and $133 million reelection bid.

Texas Republican Greg Abbot, meanwhile, raised $116 million for his 2022 reelection bid. But Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke — who has outraised him since the summer — has forced Abbott to outspend his opponent by wide margins. Now, Abbott is left with less cash on hand than O’Rourke for the second reporting period in a row, with his overall coffers hitting a nearly two-decade low.

“It has long been said that ‘money is the mother’s milk of politics,’” said longtime Florida Republican consultant David Johnson, a former executive director for the Republican Party of Florida. “The DeSantis team has built a national dairy farm to table operation in just four years. We have seen large networked donor operations on a grand scale operate in the past, to some great effect.”

“Team DeSantis is more notable because it is small, fierce and reaping such huge amounts,” he added.

The DeSantis-aligned committee and his campaign have spent more than $100 million since 2018. During that time period, DeSantis helped fund more than $65 million in TV ads through his committee and the Republican Party of Florida, a number that could also break records as his campaign and committee continue to fill the airwaves with TV spots through Election Day. Previously, the most spent on TV ads was $73 million during former Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 reelection bid.

DeSantis, who has at least one contribution from all 50 states, is up comfortably in public polling, and Republicans have dominated the preelection day voting period. This means he is likely to sail to victory and doesn’t need to put a large dent in the roughly $90 million he still has in the bank.

Sam Ramirez, a spokesperson for Democratic Charlie Crist, who is challenging the Florida governor, said their campaign has “raised $30 million from hundreds of thousands of grassroots donors.”

“Unlike Ron DeSantis, our campaign is backed by the people, not billionaires and corporate donors,” he said.

The Florida governor has brushed off questions about his potential presidential aspirations but his actions in recent months have done little to downplay the persistent sense that he is planning a 2024 run, setting up a potential clash with Trump, who is widely expected to run for the White House.

DeSantis has also focused on helping Republicans in other states this election cycle, including most recently campaigning for Republican New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin and cutting a TV ad for Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee. Throughout the midterms, DeSantis held rallies for candidates in key states such as Arizona, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, offering his conservative clout to Republicans in tough races, all while developing an early national political network.

“Florida is a law-and-order state. I am a law-and-order governor. If Lee Zeldin gets into office, New York will become a law-and-order state,” DeSantis said at a recent campaign event in New York for Zeldin.

Marissa Martinez contributed to this report.

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