A day after Ron DeSantis' political operation suffered another major setback — the departure of a chief strategist — Florida's governor ignored internal turmoil at an event in Iowa and did not take questions from reporters. Maybe there just wasn't much left to say.
The Never Back Down group, a super PAC formed to help DeSantis take on Donald J. Trump and serve as a powerful shadow campaign with a massive war chest and influential political team, had lost another key player, the sixth high-ranking leader. leave in recent weeks.
In the months since its founding, the super PAC has burned tens of millions of dollars and changed its mission and strategy without much success. Four weeks before the first nominating elections in Iowa, he now faces questions about whether what remains is enough to make an impact, without much time to refocus or rebuild.
So instead, DeSantis and his allies sought to go on the offensive against his rivals for the Republican nomination, particularly Trump, who is firmly in Iowa, and former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who is challenging him more directly. – something he has struggled to do on the debate stage.
On Sunday, at a packed coffee shop in Oskaloosa, Iowa, DeSantis assured voters that he would strengthen the country's military and said that, unlike Trump, his leadership “wasn't about entertainment.”
While DeSantis has tried to project strength and competence on the campaign trail, behind-the-scenes infighting at Never Back Down has often overshadowed his efforts.
The group, which had amassed $130 million to support his candidacy, was supposed to make a difference. Rather, he has at times been a distraction, even as he works to build a formidable get-out-the-vote operation in early nominated states.
The departure Saturday of strategist Jeff Roe, an influential political consultant who seeded Never Back Down with allies at his company, Axiom, followed the loss of the group's first chief executive, Chris Jankowski, just before Thanksgiving. Jankowski's replacement, Kristin Davison, was fired in early December, and Never Back Down president Adam Laxalt, a longtime friend of DeSantis, also resigned this month, while two other top officials were fired.
Never Back Down is now in an uncertain place. The group quickly burned through money and its new interim president and CEO, Scott Wagner, is a Miami lawyer and close college friend of DeSantis, rather than an experienced political operative, although he has served on the group's board of directors. In a post on X, Mr. Roe seemed blame for his resignation due to negative comments Wagner made in a Washington Post article about fired employees.
Meanwhile, another group of DeSantis loyalists has created a new super PAC, Fight Right, that has been running ads against Haley, who has caught up with or surpassed DeSantis in many polls. The groups latest announcement He referred to Ms. Haley as “Tricky Nikki,” accusing her of pushing “the woke corporate agenda” on immigration. The announcement was the latest sign that DeSantis, who predicted victory in Iowa over Trump, has instead found himself in a two-front war, fighting Haley for anti-Trump voters while also trying to win back supporters. of Trump. the previous president.
Never Back Down, or NBD, had previously handled advertising, but DeSantis' campaign, which is not legally allowed to coordinate with the group, suggested it would focus on turning out voters.
“We have complete confidence in NBD's running game and field operation, which is second to none,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement Sunday. “There is an all-star team and we appreciate their independent efforts to fight for Ron DeSantis.”
A spokeswoman for Never Back Down did not respond to a request for comment.
Instead of addressing the recent tumult, DeSantis sharpened his criticism of Haley and continued to attack Trump.
DeSantis has recently urged voters to question why Haley hasn't given a firm answer about whether she would accept a job as Trump's vice president, should he offer it to her after winning the Republican nomination. The implication is that Haley is aligning herself with Trump and attacking DeSantis on his behalf, rather than seeking the nomination herself. On Saturday, DeSantis' campaign sent out an email proclaiming that the governor was “not running to be anything else.”
“She owes you an answer to this,” DeSantis told the audience at a town hall in Concord, NH, on Friday. It was a line of attack he repeated at another event that same night.
DeSantis also noted that Trump had not ruled out selecting Haley during a recent radio interview. “Right now I'm not even thinking about that,” the former president had said when asked about the possibility. “I've always gotten along well with Nikki,” he added, but cautioned that it was “unlikely” he would choose Ms. Haley. (For his part, DeSantis reiterated in New Hampshire that she would not run as Trump's candidate, saying he could accomplish more as governor than as vice president.)
Ms. Haley has poured cold water on the charge without directly responding. At a stop this month in Sioux City, Iowa, a voter asked if she would be Trump's vice president. “I have never played second,” she responded. (A spokeswoman for her campaign, Olivia Pérez-Cubas, said DeSantis “would say anything to try to save the sinking ship of his campaign.”)
On Sunday in Oskaloosa, DeSantis did not repeat his criticism. But one of his allies, Mark Chelgren, a former Iowa state senator, opened the event by criticizing Trump as “interesting” for denying his defeat in the 2020 election.
“The reality was, the week before absentee ballots were cast, he had a debate with Joe Biden, and they both seemed immature, selfish and petty,” Chelgren told voters. “That's why Donald Trump lost the last election.”
As for Roe and the turmoil over Never Back Down, most voters said they were more concerned about policy differences between the candidates than political infighting.
Jordan Padgett, an undecided voter, said he had never even heard of Never Back Down. “I know the movie, it's a great movie,” he said, referring to the 2008 action movie of the same name.
But Shari Dayton, who supports DeSantis, said the fact that the governor's PAC appears to be in disarray could affect how she votes in the January caucuses.
Upon hearing the news of the organization's problems, his eyes widened. “I'll have to look into that,” she said. “It's interesting.”
Shane Goldmacher contributed reports.
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