Happy Friday! Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of California and GOP strategist Rob Stutzman used to trade political punches. Now they are friends, united by their mutual love for golf … and contempt for former President Donald Trump.
Up to Speed
- Former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty to four criminal charges on Thursday regarding his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Trump was arraigned in a Washington courthouse with a direct view of where the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol took place.
- An official with the Koch super PAC, Americans for Prosperity Action, tells The Dispatch the group expects to endorse a non-Trump GOP presidential candidate before the January 15 Iowa caucuses. Earlier this week, the group launched a seven figure ad buy in four early states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—urging voters to move on from former President Donald Trump. “What we’re finding is that a significant number of even Trump supporters recognize that he’s a weak candidate, recognize that he has serious problems attracting independent swing voters, and would be open to an alternative candidate,” says Bills Riggs, an AFP spokesman.
- President Joe Biden continues to build out his campaign, this week hiring three senior DNC finance employees, according to Politico. Two will be the campaign’s finance co-directors and the third will be the campaign’s grassroots fundraising director. “These leaders have incomparable expertise that will ensure we leave no stone unturned to raise money using innovative tactics that reach supporters where they are,” said campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez.
- Devon Archer, a former business associate of Hunter Biden, shared a letter he purportedly received from then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2011. It begins, “I apologize for not getting a chance to talk to you at the luncheon yesterday. I was having trouble getting away from hosting President Hu.” The letter also includes a handwritten signature and a postscript that reads, “Happy you guys are together,” referring to Hunter Biden and Archer’s business partnership.
- Rep. Dan Bishop, who initially opposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the gavel, announced on Thursday he will forgo reelection and run for North Carolina attorney general next year instead—consistent with The Dispatch’s reporting last week. “Over the course of many months we’ve decided this is the right thing for me to do, to come back to North Carolina,” said Bishop.
- Trust in the Mission PAC, the group supporting Sen. Tim Scott’s presidential bid, launched its third ad of the campaign on Thursday as part of a previously disclosed $7.25 million summer ad buy in Iowa. The super PAC also bought $40 million in ad reservations for this fall, bringing its total expenditures on ads to $47.25 million.
- While struggling with her day-to-day functions on Capitol Hill, 90-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is involved in a bitter family legal dispute over the fortune amassed by her late husband, Richard C. Blum. “The financial conflict is another element that makes the end of her career sad to people who have known her in the high points of her career,” Feinstein biographer Jerry Roberts told the New York Times.
DeSantis Reset Rolls Out to Mixed Reviews
Ron DeSantis is barely one full week removed from a major campaign shakeup, and Republican insiders are already doubtful the changes will improve the Florida governor’s sagging presidential prospects.
The most consistent criticism is that DeSantis still lacks a coherent, compelling message capable of dislodging Donald Trump from the pole position and coalescing a majority, or at least winning plurality, in key early primary states. Skepticism—about his basic political strategy and whether the governor is likable enough to excite voters—also continues to dog the campaign. Even some Republicans rooting for DeSantis, if for no other reason than they oppose the former president, call the reset disappointing.
“No one not on the spin team or the payroll is impressed; and many of those who are, are quietly eye-rolling,” says a Republican operative in Florida, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, DeSantis’ campaign overhaul is getting much better reviews. The governor has been spending a lot more time in both early primary battlegrounds, a direct result of his reevaluation of campaign tactics and strategy. Supporters say his presence on the trail is making a positive difference. Adjustments in what DeSantis is doing when he’s on the trail—fewer podium speeches, more town hall meetings and more retail politicking—is also bearing fruit.
It’s not just DeSantis supporters who are saying so. Some Republican insiders unaffiliated with the governor’s campaign agree. “The campaign is going much better in Iowa than it might feel if all you’re doing is watching national news outlets,” Republican strategist David Kochel says. Kochel is a top GOP operative in Iowa and has run multiple GOP presidential caucus campaigns.
DeSantis also appears to be on firmer footing in the Granite State after campaigning there this week, offers Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.“DeSantis had a great trip to New Hampshire,” he says. “Almost four days of nonstop campaigning and voter interaction. Whether this is from a reset or some other factor, his campaigning is much more humble and has the energy of a challenger.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday DeSantis announced new endorsements from 35 Republican legislators and local party leaders in South Carolina.
The Details of the DeSantis Shakeup
It’s been a rough three weeks for the Florida governor.
In mid-July, the DeSantis campaign came under fire for burning through cash to keep afloat a bloated staff, all while Trump climbed to over 50 percent in most GOP primary polls and DeSantis sank into a distant second place. Criticism sprouted from all corners—donors, activists, and, of course, the media. In addition to complaints about the oversized staff and financial mismanagement, they argued DeSantis wasn’t doing enough media interviews or retail politicking, and wasn’t focused enough on the economy.
Multiple sources tell The Dispatch that DeSantis campaign aides, including and especially campaign manager Generra Peck, accepted the torrent of criticism, recognizing that these and other problems needed fixing. Top campaign officials, with input from the governor himself, set about making changes. It was a two-week process that culminated with the firing of 38 paid staff and contractors across all departments, plus significant adjustments to campaign strategy, tactics, messaging and media engagement.
DeSantis has since sat for more adversarial interviews with CNN, CBS News, and Fox News anchor Bret Baier, mixing up a media regimen previously dominated by conversations with friendly conservative hosts. He’s participating in more events in Iowa and New Hampshire, and on Monday he rolled out a new economic plan. Sources familiar with the internal campaign deliberations that led to the shakeup tell The Dispatch the mechanics of the reset have taken hold and are proving successful.
“I think the DeSantis team has addressed the criticisms leveled at it over the first couple bumpy months,” one knowledgeable source says. “The operation is running leaner and smoother than it has been.”
The DeSantis campaign declined to comment to Dispatch Politics.
Will It Work?
But the question remains: Will any of this, over time, reverse the governor’s slide and help him make a dent in Trump’s consistent lead in the early primary states?
Republicans not yet ready to bury DeSantis say it’s going to take time to judge the effectiveness of the moves the governor made to overhaul his campaign. He still enjoys advantages over the rest of the Republican primary field: a super PAC that began the campaign with a war chest that exceeded $100 million; an extensive voter turnout operation already humming in Iowa and New Hampshire; and voters still intrigued enough to give him some of the biggest crowds of any candidate not named Trump.
They concede it might not be enough. “If he can’t connect with voters and land clean shots on Trump, he’ll be toast,” a Republican operative in Iowa says.
Dave Carney, a veteran Republican strategist in New Hampshire, explains DeSantis’ challenge this way: “They’re going door-to-door to every farmhouse in Iowa: Great. What are they saying? What is their message?” DeSantis, he emphasizes, needs a message that resonates.
“They don’t need 25,000 door knockers,” Carney says. “What are they talking about at the door?”
Notable and Quotable
“We have people in the party like Trump and Ron DeSantis, Vivek, who are giving people a false choice, which is ‘Well, we can only do one thing; we can either improve things in the States or we can help Ukraine’ … When you look at the amount of money we’ve sent to Ukraine as a percentage of the federal budget, anybody who can do the math knows that’s a ridiculous statement.”
—Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to the Washington Post, during his visit this week to Ukraine, Friday, August 4