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Ron DeSantis Is Slouching Towards Washington
What the Florida Republican's inept campaign for President of the United States tells us about political consulting on the right
The world that Political Junkie was built for is shaping. We are not just in faux campaign or pre-campaign anymore, the Republican hordes, Joe Biden, and Marianne Williamson have launched. A potential “No Labels” campaign is still hovering out there, just in case you were starting to sleep nights. Do you have a friend who wants to stay up to date? Then please:
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis will officially announce his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination tonight at 6 p.m.: he will do it in a conversation with your Host of Hosts, Elon Musk. It’s worth watching, if only to see how two of the most socially inept people on the planet interact with each other in real-time. But you have to wonder: what problem is Ron DeSantis trying to solve by launching his campaign on Twitter? And what constituency is he trying to draw by doing it in partnership with Musk, a conspiracist, eccentric, and increasingly antisemitic billionaire who has managed to break one of the most innovative platforms of the digital political consulting age?
Part of DeSantis’s problem is that he is highly unlikeable. DeSantis is Ted Cruz-level unlikeable outside Florida, where his polling numbers are robust. Whether it is his intrusive and bigoted policies or robotic public performances, the more visible the Florida Governor is, the lower his poll numbers go.
DeSantis is an open book: he pretty much hates everyone who is not socially, culturally, and politically conservative. On top of that, his campaign strategy so far is horrendous. In openly suturing himself to right-wing extremists, DeSantis has tried to out-Trump the Former Guy, which cannot be done. And by pitching himself as the most capable authoritarian ever, he has cost himself the demographic any presidential candidate needs to win in a general election: almost fifty percent of unaffiliated or independent voters.
One answer to why DeSantis is floundering might be Jeff Roe, a 52-year-old political consultant from Missouri, hired earlier this year to run DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down. An elfin fellow who has worked for both Cruz and Youngkin, Roe is the founder of Axiom Strategies, a firm that does both corporate and political consulting and that has grown fat in the age of Trump. According to Josh Dawsey and Isaac Stanley-Becker of the Washington Post, in the ten years since he founded Axiom, Roe has gone from running local races to taking on clients that have become national, sometimes polarizing, figures. In 2022, his barn included Senate candidates Adam Laxalt in Nevada, Jim Lamon in Arizona, Josh Mandel in Ohio, David McCormick in Pennsylvania, and Eric Schmitt in Missouri.
What do they have in common? They all lost, spending millions of dollars on TV ads together.
Roe’s track record and connection to the floundering DeSantis campaign may tell an important tale about political consulting on the right. Particularly noticeable in the political landscape is extremist GOP candidates who can’t win a general election but collect piles of small donor cash that can be pumped into media buys and commissions. Roe takes a 63% commission on every ad buy, so for every $1 million spent on ads, Axiom wins a commission of $630,000. One MAGA GOP political consultant who seems to be touting DeSantis online as the best Trump alternative fumed in a private message to me that Roe is “true scum of the earth,” by which I think he meant that Roe is only in this game for the money, honey.
And money he has made. According to Dawsey and Becker,
In the 2022 cycle, Roe told investors that his firm, which also has corporate clients, had taken in $196 million in net revenue, while earning more than $22 million as profit after depreciation and taxes. By 2024, he said those numbers would climb to $250 million and about $36 million in profit.
Roe flies in a private plane, owns a multi-million dollar beachfront home in Bonita, Florida, and recently flaunted his success at the Kentucky Derby by wearing a solid gold necklace with a big, honking dollar sign hanging from it.
But Roe says he deserves the cash because
his company’s record is much rosier when state and local races, as well as outside spending vehicles, are included in the tally, citing 748 wins and 322 losses in the 2022 election cycle. Presented with The Post’s analysis, Axiom said its broader umbrella of companies had 118 congressional clients in the 2022 cycle — meaning at least one of those companies performed a service for the client — and that 76 of those clients won.
This may explain, in part, why DeSantis's messaging for a national campaign makes him seem like a local candidate who somehow lost his way and ended up in a diner in Iowa. Indeed, the current campaign slogan, "Make America Florida," manages to simultaneously not have the zip and recognition factor of "Make America Great Again" and be totally incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't live in Florida.
Otherwise, DeSantis's announcement is news the way the money shot in a porno film is news. He has been teasing a campaign launch for months, a not-uncommon practice that can allow a candidate to create excitement, line up endorsements and donors, test campaign slogans in front of focus groups, and leak commissioned polls to demonstrate momentum.
Perhaps as a result of Roe's lousy advice (or DeSantis's boneheaded bigotry), despite breathless assertions that their guy can still win the nomination (something no one in the media, at least, believes), the DeSantis campaign has not Senatorshed the kind of platform that you want to go into a national campaign with. He has signed a six-week abortion ban that is demonstrably unpopular with most Americans, bullied trans kids, teachers, and LGBTQ Floridians. Then, when Disney moseyed out to defend queer people, DeSantis picked a fight that put him at odds with the party's business wing.
As a result, DeSantis's polling numbers which were always bad, have dipped into the low 20s, even as former president Donald Trump's endless legal crimes and civil court losses have caused his numbers to surge into the 50s among likely Republican primary voters. So even if all five candidates currently in the race, not to mention those thinking of jumping in ( former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin), dropped out and endorsed him, DeSantis would still be hard put to win the nomination.
In fact, Ron DeSantis is probably the only person running for president in either party who would actually benefit from Donald Trump going to jail.
It tells you something about what a terrible candidate he is and how off the rails the campaign has gone even before it starts.
Since announcing his presidential bid yesterday, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott has raised $2 million. Reporters and pundits keep calling Scott a “happy warrior,” an old cSenatorhat means he is well-liked, doesn’t give people awful nicknames, and doesn’t spout conspiracy theories. The moniker also expresses the breathless hope that Scott is a throwback to the party of McCain. Good luck with that. The good news? Scott has $22 million in the bank, and Oracle founder Larry Ellison has given him $25 million to jump-start a Super PAC. The bad news? Scott is going to need that money —and much, much more. Julia Manchester and Caroline Vakil at The Hill report that the first Black senator from South Carolina since Reconstruction is polling in the single digits. Can a $6 million ad buy in Iowa change that? Can it put Scott anywhere in spitting distance of Trump? Probably not. Can Scott do well enough to become the Trumpster’s running mate? (May 24, 2023)
Republican Kari Lake is still losing the Arizona governor’s race six months after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Peter Thompson declared her the loser. Yesterday, the Arizona Supreme Court sent it back to Thompsn to be reargued, and Thompson told Lke’s attorneys to take a long walk and not come back. Lake’s argument, which she claims to want to take to the U.S. Supreme Court, is that the signatures on close to 300,000 Maricopa County ballots were improperly verified and, as Howard Fischer reports at the Arizona Capitol Times, “that problems with voting equipment on Election Day had a disproportionate effect on Republicans and therefore amount to intentional discrimination.” The belief that the Arizona deep state screwed her has not quenched Lake’s ambitions, however: she is pondering a run for “something” in 2024. Rumor has it that something is the Senate seat currently occupied by former Democrat, now Independent, Kyrsten Sinema. (May 23, 2023)
Republican Senator Mitt Romney is getting primaried! According to Sam Metz at the Associated Press, Trent Staggs, the mayor of Riverton, Utah, is challenging the Senator who he characterizes as “woke” and a “millionaire from Massachusetts” (one of those things is true.) Should he choose to run, it could be a crowded primary that allows the 76-year-old Romney to win. “Staggs’ announcement makes him the first Republican to officially enter the race, though Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson set up an exploratory committee in April, allowing him to raise funds toward a candidacy,” Metz writes. “Former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz told The Associated Press in February that he was thinking about running. A representative for state Attorney General Sean Reyes has also said many were pressuring him to run as well.” (May 23, 2023)
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