When he enters POTUS race, DeSantis’ cash haul will likely overwhelm competitors — but it depends

By: - May 17, 2023 3:03 pm

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters on March 10, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. DeSantis, who is widely expected to seek the 2024 Republican nomination for president, is one of several Republican leaders visiting the state this month. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares to officially declare his candidacy for a GOP presidential run in 2024, one thing seems clear leading up to his announcement: DeSantis expects to start out with a hefty campaign chest larger than any others in the race.

A federal political action committee, Never Back Down, which was formed to support a DeSantis presidential campaign, has about $33 million in its coffers, according to a spokesperson. Another $86 million is left over from a state PAC, Friends of Ron DeSantis, which is expected to be transferred to Never Back Down. (As of Tuesday, Friends of Ron DeSantis is no longer listed on the Florida Division of Elections website, but the data is now connected to a PAC called Empower Parents.)

The amounts add up to $119 million in all, but there’s a big catch.

The DeSantis campaign may face a legal claim with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) when the state pot’s money is moved into the federal pot, meaning Never Back Down.

It’s not clear what the other presidential candidates — Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson, and Vivek Ramaswamy — might think about moving the money to a federal pot, which would help DeSantis.

That move has raised concerns by some campaign finance experts, such as the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group.

A legal complaint

That’s because under the 2002 campaign law, best known as “McCain-Feingold,” federal candidates are legally prohibited from raising or spending funds that are not subject to federal campaign laws – so called “soft money.” DeSantis raised that $86 million under Florida election law, not federal election law.

U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, speaks to reporters following a closed-door meeting on the debt limit, in the Capitol basement on Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In 2020, the Campaign Legal Center filed a legal complaint with the FEC after then-Naples-based GOP state Rep. Byron Donalds moved more than $107,000 of campaign cash out of his state-based candidate-controlled PAC to a federal super PAC in connection to his (ultimately successful) bid for U.S. Congress.

The Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) general counsel recommended that “the commission find reason to believe” that Donalds had violated the Federal Campaign Act of 1971 and that there was sufficient evidence to have the FEC research the situation.

However, the six members of the FEC deadlocked 3-3 on the matter, with three Democrats voting to continue the investigation, and three Republicans voting to end it.

“We continue to think as we said in the complaint that this is a violation of the soft money restrictions of federal campaign finance law,” says Shanna Ports, the senior legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. “There are laws saying a federal candidate or any entity such as a PAC that he’s established, controls, maintains or finances cannot spend or direct or transfer money unless that money is part of the federal system, so it complies with the federal contribution limits and restrictions on sources, such as no corporate contributions and is reported to the FEC.”

“We’re definitely keeping our eye on how the situation unfolds and would be considering that,” says Ports.

The Campaign Legal Center also filed a complaint in a similar situation in 2018. That’s when Debbie Lasko, an Arizona state legislator and congressional candidate, transferred $50,000 from her state campaign committee to a super PAC. After originally agreeing to investigate the charge, the FEC ultimately declined to sanction Lasko.

Because Donalds and Lasko were allowed to go ahead and transfer funds from their state PACs to their federal PACs without any negative consequences, the conventional wisdom is that DeSantis will likely be able to do the same thing.

But that’s a maybe

Stephen Spaulding, vice president of policy with Common Cause in Washington D.C., says nobody should assume that will automatically happen.

“I don’t think there should be any assumption,” he told the Phoenix. “I think that each case has to be considered on its own and I don’t think that it should totally be dismissed out of hand just because there may be a similar fact.”

The fact that the FEC commissioners deadlocked on the Donalds case at 3-3 and could do the same if a legal challenge is presented to the FEC when the DeSantis campaign transfers the state money has frustrated many observers of the agency over the years. “The law exists for a reason but it’s only as strong as its enforced,” Spaulding said.

Florida State Sen. Blaise Ingoglia speaks March 21, 2023. (Screenshot via Florida Channel)

DeSantis contacted the state earlier this month, according to POLITICO, to indicate that he was no longer associated with Friends of Ron DeSantis. A few days later, Central Florida Republican state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia officially took over as chairman. Ingoglia also is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. (As of Tuesday, Friends of Ron DeSantis is no longer listed on the Florida Division of Elections website, but the data is now connected to a PAC called Empower Parents.)

That was an important move, says Bradley Smith, who served on the Federal Election Commission in a Republican designed seat from 2000-2005.

“Generally speaking, the FEC’s position has been that if he’s not exercising legal control, he doesn’t control it, and I think that probably in the end that’s right,” Smith told the Phoenix in a phone conversation. “The U.S. Supreme Court has held correctly that you really can’t limit independent expenditures by Americans, and so when you come to that conclusion, he’s probably not going to have a problem.

So which candidates really have the most money right now?

DeSantis raised more than $200 million for his reelection campaign for governor last year, the most that any candidate running for governor has ever raised. More than $60 million remained in his Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC after the election.

Since then, it’s been padded with an additional $26 million, with the expectation from those donors that their money would probably be used for future ambitions like a presidential run. Florida election law places no financial limits on how much an individual, corporation or union can contribute to a state PAC.

And of course, adding in $33 million from Never Back Down adds up to the $119 million.

DeSantis’ next closest financial competitor in the GOP race is former President Donald Trump. Trump has three active campaign accounts – his own presidential account, as well as two super PACs, Save America and Make America Great Again, Inc.

Trump’s main political campaign account reports having $13.9 million cash-in-hand at the last quarterly report at the end of March.  It is not possible to know exactly how many funds are in the two super PACs because their totals will not be updated until the end of July (non-connected political committees have the option of filing on a semi-annual basis during a non-election year, an FEC official told the Phoenix). However, Make America Great Again, Inc. reported $54 million cash in hand at the end of 2022, while Save America had $18 million cash on hand at the end of 2022, USA Today reports.

That’s roughly a total of $86 million, not including the reported surge of donations he received after New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted him in the Stormy Daniels case in late March.

A look at the other candidates fundraising totals:

  • South Carolina Republican U.S. Senator Tim Scott converted nearly $22 million in funds from his Senate campaign committee to his presidential exploratory committee once he entered the presidential race, and he had nearly that amount in cash-on-hand at the end of March.
  • South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has four separate campaign accounts. Her regular campaign account and three related PACs. She originally reported raising $11 million after the first quarter of this year, though media reports showed that the FEC filings indicated that she actually received $8.3 million.
  • Vivek Ramaswamy, the 37-year-old entrepreneur and author, has $9.3 million cash-on-hand at the end of March. That’s mostly fueled by a $10 million loan he gave to his campaign.
  • Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson formally announced his presidential campaign less than a month ago and has not filed any campaign reports as of yet.
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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry is a reporter for Florida Phoenix. He has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.