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Memo to Ron DeSantis: Be Smarter
The most embarrassing aspect of his super PAC's debate prep memo isn't the content. It's that he hobbled himself with a moronic campaign structure.
This week, the New York Times obtained various memos to Ron DeSantis from the strategists at his allied super PAC, Never Back Down. The way they obtained the memos was pretty simple: they downloaded them from the public website of Axiom Strategies, a political consulting firm run by the PAC’s top strategist, Jeff Roe.
One brief memo contains debate prep advice: DeSantis should “hammer” Vivek Ramaswamy (call him “fake Vivek,” the memo suggests) and find an opportunity to defend Donald Trump from Chris Christie’s attacks, albeit backhandedly (say everyone should lay off Trump since he’s “too weak to defend himself”).
The memo’s content is embarrassing. It feeds narratives about DeSantis being aloof and unlikable (an anecdote about his family should involve “showing emotion,” the memo urges) and about him being too afraid to directly attack the candidate who’s beating him: Trump. Christie, whose career highlight involved dismantling an opponent for being canned and consultant-driven in a debate, is sure to beat DeSantis over the head with it.
But the strangest thing about these memos is that we’re able to see them at all.
This wasn’t a leak or an accidental disclosure by the DeSantis campaign or its associated PAC. It was a required public disclosure — Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general and former Trump administration official who runs Never Back Down, said Friday that publishing the memos was simply a way of complying with laws prohibiting campaigns and super PACs from coordinating in private. He told Semafor’s Shelby Talcott: “It’s an information dump publicly and the risk of doing that is you’re sharing it with everybody…it’s not preferred, but we’re always gonna stay legal.”
Sure. But that just goes to why most campaigns are not run this way — in a normal campaign, core strategic functions like deciding on a debate strategy are contained within the campaign, not outsourced to a super PAC that isn’t legally allowed to have private conversations with the campaign.
And to be clear, the biggest absurdity — and the real embarrassment here — is not that the memos are now public. It’s that the DeSantis campaign has outsourced its political strategy.
Suppose you are a normal political candidate trying to develop a campaign strategy. You and your campaign manager might want to gather in a room with your strategist and your pollster. You might bat around strategy ideas and fodder for poll questions. When poll results come back, you might have questions for the pollster about what they mean, or feedback about what to ask in the next poll. You might want your strategist to weigh in on what the results mean about where your campaign should allocate money and candidate time. And you might want to discuss debate strategy. The point is: there’s a reason political candidates try to hire teams of smart people to help them design and run smart campaigns. But Ron DeSantis has adopted a campaign structure that makes it literally illegal for him to do that — to get in a room with his key advisers and have these conversations.
As the Times notes, this is not normal.
Taken together, the documents reveal the remarkable extent to which the financially struggling DeSantis campaign is relying upon the resources of his super PAC, which raised $130 million in the first half of the year. The outside group is paying for research on Mr. DeSantis’s rivals, strategic insights and polling — all traditionally the work of campaigns themselves.
The argument I keep hearing for why DeSantis went with this campaign structure is that it was financially necessary: His support is so concentrated among megadonors that he needed to offload as many functions as possible to the PAC that could legally take their megadonations, even core ones like strategy and polling.
I don’t really buy that — the campaign made this bizarre structural choice before realizing it was so cash-crunched it needed to lay off dozens of staffers, and as far as I can tell, none of DeSantis’s less-well funded competitors has opted for this structure. I think the real explanation is simple: he’s getting bad advice from people who don’t have his best interests at heart, and he isn’t smart enough to realize it.
Who benefits from this campaign structure? Well, it seems pretty good for the top adviser to Never Back Down, Jeff Roe, who gets to work outside the strictures of the campaign with a giant pile of megadonor money, collecting god-knows-how-much in fees. Back in May, The Washington Post reported on an investor prospectus released by Roe’s firm Axiom, which openly touts the firm’s financial success as being built on controlling as much of a campaign’s spending as possible. Roe is, in the words of his frequent political ally David McIntosh of the Club For Growth, “an incredibly talented businessman.” And the prospectus, as cited in the Post, argued as much:
To convince investors that they should give him $25 million, Axiom founder Jeff Roe presented a startling statistic about how his firm makes money, according to a copy of a 36-page investor prospectus obtained by The Washington Post.
“Share of wallet: Axiom now captures at least 63% of every dollar spent by its campaigns, versus less than 10% as just GC,” the presentation reads, using an acronym for general consultant. Axiom told potential investors that it’s able to vacuum up a larger share of the money spent by its political clients than other firms because it offers more comprehensive services and urges campaigns to use the firm as a one-stop shop…
For example, Kelly Craft, a Republican who ran for governor in Kentucky, used at least six different Roe firms for her race, paying them more than $7 million total — or about 70 percent of her campaign expenditures, campaign filings show. Most of that money was spent on buying advertisements. DeSantis and [Ted] Cruz, a close friend of Roe, both endorsed Craft. She lost in [the May] primary, securing 17 percent of the vote and coming in third.
While that spending didn’t work out great for Craft — who, since she is married to a billionaire, will still be alright after self-funding her failed campaign — the whole model has been obviously good for Roe, as the Post noted:
Even by the standards of the wealthy environs he now occupies, Roe has been overt about embracing the trappings of his financial success, according to people who know him. He flies in a private plane he purchased, informally known as “Axiom Air,” people familiar with the aircraft say. He splits his time among Houston, Lake Tahoe and, in the home state of the governor he wants to help make president, in Bonita Springs near Naples, where he purchased a beach house for $3.5 million last year. He was pictured at the Kentucky Derby this year wearing a large gold plastic chain with a “$” sign around his neck, a photo he says he took as part of a bet with friends at the race.
This brings me to one other odd recent story about Never Back Down. The Daily Beast reported last month that the PAC has been focused on building up a field organizing operation in Texas, which won’t vote until Super Tuesday in early March, seven weeks after the Iowa caucuses. That’s a strange priority for a campaign that doesn’t have a clear strategy for getting to Super Tuesday. But a bias toward spending in Texas is maybe not as strange once you consider the close ties between Roe and Ted Cruz, who will face a competitive re-election campaign in Texas next year. As the Post noted:
Axiom has also capitalized on Roe’s close ties with Cruz, whose failed 2016 presidential campaign he ran, to attract clients, according to emails and people who have spoken to Roe and his team. Cruz has often endorsed candidates that are represented by Roe. Standing up the DeSantis operation, Roe has relied heavily on former Cruz staffers.
I’ve written a few times about DeSantis’s thumping re-election victory in Florida last year and my attempts to grapple with why it happened. Was he a savvy political operator who figured out how to win a landslide by fusing base-activating culture war politics with broadly appealing policies like toll rebates, teacher pay hikes and Everglades restoration? Or was he just a guy who had one smart political insight (“COVID restrictions are unpopular”) and the good fortune to run against the hapless Florida Democratic Party while falling backwards into a massive state budget surplus created by federal aid? I’m increasingly convinced that the answer is the latter: That he’s gotten himself into this situation, with no control over his campaign treasury or his campaign brain trust, is just another demonstration that he’s just not very good at this.
If I were one of his opponents in the debate, I’d try to find a way to explain this without getting into the nuances of campaign finance law — the memo doesn’t just show him to be fake, it shows that he doesn’t even really have a campaign in the normal sense of the word. How could a guy like that be trusted with the task of taking on Joe Biden and the Democrats? He just isn’t ready.
More typically, the campaign and the PAC play opposite roles to the ones they apparently do in DeSantis World: A normal campaign makes core strategy decisions and sends public messages to the super PAC about how it would like strategic messages to be disseminated. Often, the campaign will use a “red box” — text literally surrounded by red box on the campaign website that will say things like “voters in the Billings media market need to hear that Congressman Smith is a tool of liberal special interests and will raise their taxes” — so the PAC knows where to buy ads and what they should say. This process is somewhat tacky, and it makes a mockery of campaign finance law, but it doesn’t run the risk of making really embarrassing disclosures of campaign matters that could ordinarily be kept private — ad messaging, after all, is inherently going to be made public sooner or later.