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Ron DeSantis is about to make a mockery of campaign finance law
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) is a prolific fundraiser. Since announcing his candidacy in 2018, DeSantis has solicited funds for his eponymous state political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. Friends of Ron DeSantis can accept contributions in unlimited amounts — from individuals and corporations. DeSantis has taken advantage of Florida's permissive rules. Even after spending tens of millions on his election and reelection, he has amassed a war chest of nearly $86 million.
Much of this money has come from very large contributions. In July 2022, Robert Bigelow, the owner of Budget Suites of America, donated $10 million to Friends of Ron DeSantis. Hedge fund manager Ken Griffin has contributed $10.75 million since 2018. In February, options trader Jeffret Yass kicked in $2.5 million. Overall, since 2018, there have been 404 contributions to Friends of Ron DeSantis for $100,000 or more, totaling more than $120 million.
Friends of Ron DeSantis has also collected significant sums directly from corporations. Charter Communications, one of the largest cable and internet providers, donated $250,000 since September 2021. AT&T added $50,000. Juul, the vape manufacturer, also contributed $50,000.
Now DeSantis is preparing to run for President. And that's a problem because DeSantis can't spend the $86 million in this state political committee on his imminent presidential campaign. Federal candidates cannot raise money directly from corporations, and they cannot accept individual contributions in excess of $6600 — $3,300 for the primary election and $3,300 for the general election.
DeSantis' Super PAC, Never Back Down, which isn't subject to the same limitations as his future campaign. Never Back Down is formally "independent" of DeSantis' political operation but is chaired by one of DeSantis' closest friends, former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt. Phil Cox, a senior advisor to DeSantis' 2022 reelection campaign, is now a senior advisor to Never Back Down. Like Friends of Ron DeSantis, Super PACs can accept individual and corporate donations in unlimited amounts.
But there is a catch. Under federal law "any entity 'directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained, or controlled…by or acting on behalf of' a federal candidate, officeholder — may not solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend funds raised outside the federal limits and source prohibitions in connection with a federal election." If DeSantis transfers the $86 million from Friends of Ron DeSantis to Never Back Down, he would be "financing" Never Back Down. That would mean Never Back Down would have to comply with federal campaign finance limits. That would defeat the entire point of a Super PAC.
But DeSantis thinks he has found a loophole. Last Friday, DeSantis formally disassociated with "Friends of Ron DeSantis." He filed a notice with the state that he was “no longer associated with the political committee” and is no longer raising money directly or indirectly for "Friends of Ron DeSantis."
On Tuesday, the Friends of Ron DeSantis website was updated to list Florida State Senator Blaise Ingoglia (R), one of DeSantis' closest political allies, as the "Associated Person."
The idea that Ron DeSantis is no longer controlling or associated with "Friends of Ron DeSantis" is absurd. And the notion that the money held by Friends of Ron DeSantis will decide to transfer its funds to Never Back Down independent of DeSantis is not credible.
It is probable that, after the transfer occurs, the scheme will draw an FEC complaint. Nevertheless, there will likely be few consequences for DeSantis' evasion of campaign finance laws.
The FEC is comprised of six members, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Since the mid-2000s, Republicans "have worked to ensure that people opposed to the agency’s core mission occupy three of those seats." In recent years, Republicans at the FEC have steadfastly refused to enforce even the most obvious violations of the campaign finance laws.