What began as a sop to satisfy concerned supporters of Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid has turned into a major campaign shakeup and a blunt acknowledgment that the Florida governor’s quest for the Republican nomination is in trouble.
Last week, the DeSantis campaign jettisoned nearly one dozen paid staff, with two senior advisers departing voluntarily. For a struggling candidate not raising enough money to afford his bloated campaign, these minor reductions left both DeSantis critics and worried supporters mystified. Meanwhile, changes in messaging strategy were minimal: Rather than talk only to friendly conservative journalists, the governor vowed to play ball with so-called hostile mainstream media outlets.
But campaign officials, led by DeSantis himself, spent the ensuing days mulling whether these adjustments were substantial enough. Their answer was “no.” And so by the close of business Tuesday, the DeSantis campaign had sacked a total of 38 full-time staff and contractors across all sectors, including the much ballyhooed, in-house digital “marketing department.” But there was more.
The DeSantis campaign emphasized this week it’s also changing its messaging strategy. Out: framing his proposed White House agenda by discussing accomplishments in Tallahassee. In: presenting his plans for the presidency in future-oriented detail. In other words, less “here’s what I’ve done” and more “here’s what I’ll do.” Also, the campaign is scrutinizing the governor’s travel practices to find more cost savings.
“Following a top-to-bottom review of our organization, we have taken additional, aggressive steps to streamline operations and put Ron DeSantis in the strongest position to win this primary and defeat Joe Biden,” DeSantis campaign manager Generra Peck said in a public statement.
DeSantis campaign officials still view the primary contest as a two-man race between former President Donald Trump, who is polling in first place at 52.4 percent, and the governor, alone in second at 18.4 percent and 13 points ahead of wealthy businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who is running third. Those numbers are from the RealClearPolitics national polling average.
But in a clear recognition of the danger to DeSantis’ prospects, his campaign is framing this week’s moves as a pivot away from an operation built for an establishment frontrunner to a slimmed-down organization more fit for an insurgent outsider.
The changes include outsourcing events where the governor interacts with voters to Never Back Down, the cash-flush super PAC supporting his presidential bid; increasing the frequency of interviews and news conferences with reporters; adding variety to the sorts of events the governor participates in—fewer speeches behind a podium, more town hall meetings and intimate gatherings; and installing fresh leadership at the top.
Cody Hall, a veteran adviser to Trump nemesis and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, was brought on to bolster communications. Digital director Ethan Eilon was promoted to deputy campaign manager and Chief Technology Officer Carl Sceusa is being appointed chief financial officer; the current CFO is leaving the campaign next week. Peck, who managed DeSantis’ 2022 reelection bid, was spared.
“Campaigns are going to make changes,” says Williams Stern, a wealthy businessman and Republican donor in South Carolina who backed Trump in the 2016 primary, and again in 2020, but is supporting DeSantis this time around. “We’re very, very competitive and as time goes on I think he’s going to be competitive, including here in South Carolina.” From a certain vantage point, such optimism might appear justified.
In the middle of a challenging two weeks marked by a cycle of seemingly never ending bad news about the governor’s campaign, he was endorsed by 19 state legislators in Utah, plus two dozen prominent Republicans in Nevada and six more elected Republicans in New Hampshire—two crucial, early primary battlegrounds. DeSantis also received the backing of two law enforcement groups in Florida.
But as this week comes to a close, DeSantis continues to fan widespread doubts about his viability beyond fundraising and cash flow. For instance, campaign messaging appears problematic and undisciplined.
On Monday, a DeSantis campaign staffer retweeted a bizarre video circulating on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. The video, which included Nazi imagery, was apparently posted by a pro-DeSantis account unaffiliated with the campaign. Axios reported that the staffer secretly produced the video and retweeted it from that account. The DeSantis campaign fired the staffer, but his actions sparked more criticism of a campaign desperately trying to find its footing.
On Wednesday, conservative talk radio host Clay Travis asked DeSantis if he might tap Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to serve as his running mate. The governor said no, but did say he was open to appointing the conspiracy theorist and Democratic presidential candidate to a post at the Food and Drug Administration or Centers for Disease Control. (Kennedy Jr. has gained fans in the Republican base for his opposition to vaccines, especially coronavirus vaccines, and because he blames the U.S. for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)
Both faux pas undermine the refined policy and political messaging the DeSantis campaign is promising to lead with going forward, say experienced Republican strategists. A memorandum from the campaign to DeSantis supporters says the governor is now hyperfocused on addressing voters’ economic concerns; securing the southern border with Mexico; combatting a rising China; and fighting the left on cultural issues and quashing the “woke ideology” that has “infiltrated our schools and our military.”
DeSantis’ Kennedy Jr. comments undermine that strategy and are indicative of a campaign that has lost its way, Republican insiders say.
“It was pretty unsettling to hear that—and quite the opposite thing he needs to do to win,” Republican strategist Scott Jennings tells The Dispatch. Entertaining the idea of bringing Kennedy Jr. into his administration is a “red flag” in itself, Jennings says. But he sees another problem: “You could tell in the full transcript that he knows RFK is a nut, but why play footsie with him at all? Hopefully it was a momentary brain fart and he won’t do it again.”
Meanwhile, the touted shift in media engagement strategy to include interviews with mainstream media mastheads and journalists has been slow to develop, although on Thursday DeSantis was interviewed by CBS News and gaggled with reporters during a swing through Iowa. Still, other than that and a roughly 15 minute interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper 10 days ago, the governor’s media schedule has been dominated by appearances with sympathetic conservative personalities and outlets. (The campaign declined to provide more information on this effort but indicated there was more to come.)
There’s still plenty of time for DeSantis to turn his campaign around. The first debate, August 23 in Milwaukee, is 25 days away, and the first nominating contest is more than five months away.
But Republican insiders in Florida say the negative momentum is taking a toll. Many DeSantis supporters there are coming to believe the campaign is futile. They’re hesitant to say so, though, because his term as governor runs through early 2027 and he will continue to wield power over their business and political interests until then. That sentiment could depress the effort they put into helping resuscitate DeSantis’ campaign.
Another problem, says a Republica operative in Tallahassee, is that the governor’s fundraising is suffering.
Not only is the pace of fundraising down from the impressive $20 million DeSantis collected in the five weeks after launching his candidacy, but some of the bills for the long list of expenditures that caused the initial concern about his campaign’s burn rate were pushed into this month. That means they will not show up until the third quarter fundraising report is publicized by the Federal Election Commission in mid-October.
That suggests DeSantis is carrying more debt and, on net, has a smaller war chest, than the second quarter report indicates. “The numbers are worsening,” the Republican operative in Tallahassee says. “Revenue is not improving, especially at the small donor level.”