By Ben Kamisar
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis raised a ton of money for his blowout re-election victory in 2022 — and the leftovers are set to give a head start to the massive super PAC boosting his 2024 presidential campaign.
The governor’s state political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, had at least $86 million in the bank at the end of April. That money can’t simply transfer into DeSantis’ presidential campaign — Federal Election Commission rules state that “a candidate’s authorized (federal) committee may not accept funds or assets transferred from a committee established by the same candidate for a nonfederal election campaign.”
But DeSantis’ political operation will direct that money to his supportive super PAC thanks to a gray area of federal campaign finance law. It’s a huge boon for DeSantis, whose Never Back Down super PAC has plans to raise and spend about $200 million and finance a huge ground game.
A transfer from DeSantis’ state committee means the super PAC will start with close to half of the total it wants to use in the GOP presidential nominating contest. The super PAC’s total budget details were first reported by the New York Times.
The first step: Friends of Ron DeSantis no longer exists, at least by that name. Florida campaign finance records show the group’s name was changed earlier this month to “Empower Parents PAC,” and GOP state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia has taken over as the group’s chairperson.
While DeSantis had previously been listed on campaign filings as the candidate the committee is supporting, the newest filing no longer includes his name and instead says a list of candidates it backs is “TBD.”
DeSantis’ official disaffiliation from the group, which is still led by an ally and packed with money donors gave to specifically support him, puts the Florida group in position to transfer its holdings to the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down super PAC. It’s even possible that a transfer has already taken place, but it would not be made public until the end of the month under state campaign disclosure laws.
There’s disagreement within the campaign finance community over whether this is actually legal. But the existing case law suggests that DeSantis’ operation can take this step unless the FEC steps in to intervene, which is seen as unlikely.
That’s because the FEC recently deadlocked over whether Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., was allowed to make a similar, much smaller-scale, action in his 2020 election.
Before running for Congress, Donalds was a state representative and raised money into a state committee. That committee sent about $100,000 to a super PAC that ended up supporting Donalds’ House campaign. A campaign finance watchdog group filed a complaint with the FEC arguing that the move violated the ban on transferring non-federal dollars into a federal election, but Donalds’ campaign disagreed.
The FEC deadlocked 3-3 on the complaint, meaning that it did not affirmatively find that the Donalds campaign broke any FEC rules. That non-action likely clears the way for DeSantis to try something similar, as long as the FEC doesn’t circle back a few years later and subsequently change its mind.
The end result: DeSantis’ super PAC is slated to start his presidential campaign backed by almost as much cash as Jeb Bush’s massive super PAC raised in the whole 2016 GOP primary.