CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Ron DeSantis has visited each of Iowa's 99 counties. He has the endorsement of the governor and boasts the largest get-out-the-vote operation in the state. And he has predicted victory in Iowa's Jan. 15 caucuses.
But as the Florida governor works to project strength in the Republican primary and cut into former President Donald Trump's huge lead, DeSantis' expansive political machine is facing a churn of leadership, stagnant polling numbers and new concerns about potential legal conflicts.
Specifically, there has been concern in recent weeks among some within DeSantis' operation that interactions between his campaign and his network of outside groups are blurring the lines of what’s legally permissible.
Multiple people familiar with DeSantis’ political network said that he and his wife had expressed concerns about the messaging of Never Back Down, the largest super PAC supporting the governor's campaign, in recent months as his Iowa polling numbers stagnated in late summer and autumn.
The governor and his wife, Casey, who is widely considered his top political adviser, were especially frustrated after the group took down a television ad last month that criticized leading Republican rival Nikki Haley for allowing a Chinese manufacturer into South Carolina when she was governor.
DeSantis’ team shared those messaging concerns with members of Never Back Down’s board, which includes Florida-based members with close ties to the governor, according to multiple people briefed on the discussions. Some of the board members then relayed the DeSantis team’s wishes to super PAC staff, which was responsible for executing strategy, the people said.
The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.
Federal laws prohibit coordination between presidential campaigns and outside groups. There is no known lawsuit or federal complaint alleging DeSantis’ campaign broke the law. And in the super PAC era that began with the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, murky relationships between campaigns and allied outside groups have become commonplace.
Still, Adav Noti, legal director for the Campaign Legal Center, said that the reported communication between DeSantis' team and the super PAC goes “too far." Noti suggested the communications could draw the scrutiny from the Federal Election Commission, which is responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws but has been gridlocked by internal divisions.
“To actually have a conversation with the candidate’s agents and the super PAC's agents about strategy — there is no plausible argument that that is legal," Noti said. “This is not a gray area.”
DeSantis’ campaign has strongly denied the governor has tried to influence the network of outside groups supporting him given the federal laws prohibiting coordination. Asked for comment, DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo described the AP's reporting as “more nonsense from unnamed sources with agendas.”
“While the media continues to obsess over attacking DeSantis with anonymous tabloid trash to support a false narrative, we remain focused on organizing in Iowa and sharing our vision for how to help the many Americans struggling this holiday season,” Romeo said.
Never Back Down founder Ken Cuccinelli dismissed questions about DeSantis’ political operation as insignificant in the overall campaign, saying “not a single voter gives a flying rat’s tail about personnel stuff.”
“We’re going to be backing the governor all the way through this thing,” Cuccinelli said in an interview at last Wednesday’s GOP debate in Alabama. “We’re not going anywhere, and I fully expect to be right there for it.”
Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, also made clear he was speaking of his own personal experience when asked directly if he felt any pressure from the DeSantises about the super PAC's strategy.
“No, not to me. No, no, I don’t play those games. I just don’t play those games,” Cuccinelli told The Associated Press. “I’ve met the governor, and I’ve encountered Casey at events, but I don’t have those conversations.”
Five Never Back Down senior officials have either been fired or quit in the past two weeks, including two chief executives, the chairman and the communications director. The group has not explained the departures publicly. At the same time, DeSantis’ Florida allies created a new super PAC, Fight Right, which quickly earned the public blessing of the DeSantis campaign.
DeSantis said he was unfamiliar with Never Back Down’s ads last week when asked at an event in Cedar Rapids — an event sponsored by the super PAC, which has hosted him on campaign stops across the state — about how well he thought they represent him.
“I don’t know. I don’t see them, to be honest with you. I don’t watch a lot of TV. So, I don’t know. I can’t really speak to that,” DeSantis told reporters, pivoting to and praising his own campaign-financed ads.
The Florida governor is relying on super PACs more than any other leading presidential candidate in the brief history of the outside groups, which exploded in importance after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010.
Never Back Down has spent nearly $43 million on paid advertising so far this year, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact. By contrast, DeSantis’ formal campaign, which he does legally control, has spent just $4.4 million.
In Iowa alone, Never Back Down has spent more than $16 million on advertising. That’s more than any other political entity, campaign or super PAC in Iowa. The group was airing several ads in November, some promoting DeSantis and others critical of Haley.
Never Back Down remains responsible for many of DeSantis’ campaign stops and get-out-the-vote efforts.
DeSantis has visited all of Iowa's 99 counties, a traditional gesture some candidates make before the caucuses to demonstrate their commitment to Iowa. Never Back Down hosted DeSantis at events in 92 of the counties he visited, according to the group's schedule.
Super PACs can accept unlimited donations, while campaigns have strict limits. The big catch: Groups like Never Back Down cannot legally coordinate with the formal campaigns on how to spend that money. And a candidate is barred from controlling a super PAC.
But as is the case with most candidate-focused super PACs in 2024, those who lead outside groups are usually close to the candidate. Many of Never Back Down’s original top staff and officers, including most of those who left this month, did not have longstanding relationships with DeSantis. Late last week, Phil Cox, who managed DeSantis’ 2022 reelection, was named a senior adviser to the super PAC.
DeSantis on Friday praised Never Back Down, which claims 26 paid staff in Iowa and says it has collected written commitments from more than 30,000 Iowa Republicans to caucus for DeSantis next month. That’s a significant figure for a contest in which the record number of participants was 186,000, in 2016.
Iowa’s caucuses traditionally reward well-organized campaigns. DeSantis' allies hope the months of effort will help them overcome expectations from polls suggesting Trump will be dominant on Jan. 15.
“I think the idea was that they would be able to really focus on this organization,” including in all 99 counties, DeSantis said on Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press” Friday. “So I think it was smart that they did that.”
Many voters who gathered to see DeSantis at a crowded bar along Iowa's border with Nebraska late last week said they were not aware of the apparent turmoil. And those who were said they weren't particularly concerned.
“That happens with every campaign. It’s early. Shakeups with people are going to happen," said 57-year-old Sally Madsen of Council Bluffs.
Madsen, who previously supported Trump, has already decided to caucus for DeSantis. She said Trump lost her support in the final year of his presidency for how he handled the COVID-19 pandemic and his failure to help who she described as “innocent” Jan. 6 rioters, many of whom have been convicted and some sent to prison.
“He didn’t do anything for them,” Madsen said of Trump. “I don’t know if he could even attract good people to work for him at this point.”
Associated Press writers Margery A. Beck in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Bill Barrow in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.