Leaders of Ron DeSantis’ Never Back Down super PAC met privately last Tuesday to strategize to combat Nikki Haley’s rise in the polls. Instead, two of them almost came to blows.
Jeff Roe, the super PAC’s chief consultant, got into a heated argument with longtime DeSantis confidant Scott Wagner while a small group of nine board members and senior staff discussed budgeting.
“You have a stick in your back, Scott,” Roe fumed at Wagner, who is a member of Never Back Down’s board of directors.
“Why don’t you come here and get him?” Wagner replied, getting up from his chair. He was quickly subdued by two other board members. The interaction was relayed to NBC News by a source in the room.
The infighting represents an escalation in the long-running war between Never Back Down’s professional political operatives and DeSantis’ Tallahassee-based inner circle over who is responsible for the governor’s failure to compete effectively with front-runner Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. DeSantis’ months-long fall from grace created an opening for Haley, whose soaring poll numbers and newfound affection from megadonors pose an existential threat to the Florida governor’s campaign.
DeSantis and his wife, Casey, are among those increasingly unhappy with Never Back Down’s leadership., according to two sources close to their thinking. And, after tempers flared at last week’s meeting, three close DeSantis allies — David Dewhirst, Jeff Aaron and Scott Ross — launched a second super PAC, Fight Right Inc., in part at their request .
Dewhirst was most recently an adviser in DeSantis’ governor’s office, and he is a close ally of James Uthmeier, who was DeSantis’ chief of staff before becoming his campaign manager. Aaron is a Florida lawyer and Ross is a lobbyist.
“James is the one taking the money,” a Republican source close to the decision-making process said of the power struggle that emerged following the creation of Fight Right.
The group began airing an ad in Iowa on Tuesday comparing Haley to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — a favorite target of conservatives for more than three decades.
DeSantis’ campaign, which cannot legally coordinate with any of the superPACs, has presented Fight Right as a welcome entrant into the 2024 political arena and Never Back Down as an important ally.
“We are thrilled to see even more donors stepping up to support Ron DeSantis’ candidacy,” said Andrew Romeo, communications director for the DeSantis campaign. “We have already seen tremendous value in supporting groups like Never Back Down, and adding new allies to independently help spread the governor’s message will only strengthen our advantage in the important weeks and months ahead. come.”
The reason Fight Right Inc. was created is the one thing that doesn’t seem to be in dispute: Never Back Down couldn’t continue to attack Haley without hurting DeSantis.
The super PAC pulled its ads in Iowa after polls and focus groups showed they weren’t working, according to two sources familiar with the decision. Worse still, Never Back Down executives concluded, the spotlight was turning against DeSantis. Voters easily connected him to the super PAC, which heavily promoted his travel sponsorship, advertising and grassroots organizing.
The Never Back Down brand “stuck like glue” to DeSantis, a person familiar with the internal deliberations said.
That’s what prompted a broader series of Never Back Down strategy meetings last week, designed to strategize on building momentum — or, at the very least, figure out how to bring down Haley without damaging DeSantis.
These tension-filled meetings led to heated exchanges between Roe and Wagner and sparked additional opposition to the creation of a new $1 million super PAC, Fight Right. Never Back Down director Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration official who made waves in March when he helped found the pro-DeSantis super PAC, sent an email to other members of the board to oppose the decision “to send $1 million to a separate PAC to run attack ads on Nikki Haley,” read an email sent Monday evening and obtained by NBC News.
“The manner in which Haley’s minting and funding appears to be occurring strikes me as extremely reprehensible, and with this email I am asking Cabell Hobbs, in her capacity as Board Secretary, to keep this email in the records. board records,” Cuccinelli said. continued.
A spokeswoman for Never Back Down declined to comment for this article.
It’s a continuation of the circular perception of the firing squad that marred DeSantis’ presidential campaign. When he entered the race in May, the governor was seen as the heavy favorite to pose the biggest threat to Trump — a prospect that was expected to be bolstered by Never Back Down, which pledged to have a budget more than $200 million.
That group has now invested $100 million over the past nine months, a period that has seen DeSantis go from front-runner to trailing Trump by huge margins in most public polls, and losing more and more more ground against Haley in the early key states. A Washington Post/Monmouth University poll released last week puts DeSantis in fifth place in New Hampshire (at 7 percent), with Trump comfortably in first place (46 percent) and Haley firmly in second (18 percent).
“I’m a little agitated that these guys spent all this money with no return,” a DeSantis contributor said in explaining the hesitance of deep-pocketed donors when Never Back Down asks for more money. “You don’t keep throwing money at Radio Shack.”
Throughout this period, Never Back Down leaders and longtime DeSantis allies have clashed over strategic direction, a simmering tension that led to open hostilities between top advisers last week and ultimately to the creation of a new committee led by DeSantis confidants.
“Ron went from being a puppet of the super PAC to having his own puppets with a super PAC,” said a senior aide to the DeSantis world who has lost confidence in the campaign.
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