How Ron DeSantis’ $100 Million ‘Death Star’ Never Back Down Super PAC Collapsedthedigitalchaps


Long before Ron DeSantis’ presidential ambitions began to falter, it was clear to anyone paying close attention that there were fatal flaws in his much-hyped political operation.

“I had to have it explained to me the first time DeSantis came here for a parade,” an early DeSantis supporter in New Hampshire recalled to The Daily Beast. “I was gonna show up for the parade and I was informed, ‘This is a Never Back Down event, so you can’t mention anything about the campaign.’ And I was like, what the hell is this?”

This, the New Hampshire presidential campaign veteran would come to learn, was how the DeSantis campaign thought they’d cracked the code to beat former President Donald Trump.

Never Back Down was launched as a super PAC—loaded up with $80 million transferred from DeSantis’ state-level PAC in Florida—designed to carry him to the presidency through sheer force. The prospect of a talent-stocked PAC spending historic sums on organizing and campaign messaging was initially so fearsome that some Republicans dubbed Never Back Down the “Death Star.”

As the New Hampshire source’s befuddlement at the parade showed, however, Never Back Down’s ambitious vision was destined to collide with the strict federal rules barring campaigns and super PACs from cooperating on strategy or even communicating at all.

But few in Republican politics expected just how spectacularly this vaunted Death Star would ultimately implode.

“This will go down as maybe the worst-orchestrated effort in modern presidential history,” said a person familiar with Never Back Down’s operations.

After months spent out of sync with the campaign, a number of officials with Never Back Down have either resigned or been fired; top PAC strategists have cursed at each other and nearly come to blows in private meetings; and a new breakaway PAC has formed.

Most troubling of all, DeSantis might be sliding backward in his quest for the presidency despite the staggering sum of nearly $100 million that his PAC has spent to support him.

With DeSantis struggling to maintain even second place as the Iowa and New Hampshire contests near, the governor’s sympathizers are fully considering the consequences of his team’s big bet that they could outsource a huge primary victory to a super PAC.

“It is gonna cost us the election,” the DeSantis supporter, who later switched allegiance to a rival non-Trump campaign, recalled thinking to themselves several months ago, now describing the decision to outsource so many critical functions to Never Back Down as “a huge, huge mistake, and we could not afford one on this.”

“We’ll never win another election if we don’t stop PACs trying to become the campaign,” the former DeSantis supporter said.

Naturally, there has been plenty of blame to go around. After a Washington Post story dissecting the drama was published on Saturday, Jeff Roe—the power strategist who was supposed to orchestrate DeSantis’ victory—resigned from Never Back Down. He cited the organization’s statements to the Post, which he saw as disparaging toward his firm’s operatives who got fired from the PAC.

For Roe—who still had nothing but positive words for DeSantis in his resignation statement—it was seemingly the last straw.

“When they fired my guys,” Roe told The Daily Beast on Tuesday, “that was tough.” (Roe would not elaborate further on the record regarding his departure.)

This summer, Roe’s firm, Axiom Strategies, along with its subsidies, was reported to have hauled in half the money spent by the PAC—more than $18 million in just the first few months of the campaign, according to The New York Times.

This month, The Daily Beast reported that the proportion had grown, with two of every three dollars that the PAC reported spending going through those firms—more than $41 million in all, a figure that includes money the companies then spent on ad buys.

While DeSantis’ enemies in Trumpworld egged on the idea that Roe was simply taking Never Back Down for a ride in order to secure a massive payday, rumors swirled that the governor and his wife, Casey, were increasingly frustrated.

According to an NBC News story published in November, a fistfight nearly broke out at a Never Back Down meeting between Roe and the PAC’s CEO, Scott Wagner. (“You have a stick up your ass, Scott,” Roe reportedly told Wagner. “Why don’t you come over here and get it?” Wagner responded.)

After that blowup, three DeSantis loyalists formed a new super PAC, but according to The Washington Post, even those close to the DeSantis campaign aren’t clear on what will come of the new knock-off version of the original PAC.

“Anybody who knew the personalities of the principals could see conflict coming from a mile away. There’s no scenario in which this was gonna be seamless,” said the person familiar with the PAC’s operation, who requested anonymity to speak freely about it.

“I have not talked to anybody who’s been surprised that it’s gotten bad between Axiom and DeSantisworld,” they added. “Did anybody think it was gonna be this bad, this quick? No.”

A spokesperson for the PAC did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for DeSantis referred The Daily Beast to a statement it gave to the Post, saying they “appreciate the independent efforts of our outside partners at NBD as they are building a historic ground game for the fight ahead.”

Yet even as dysfunctional as Never Back Down proved itself to be, other Republicans who spoke to The Daily Beast for this story pointed to DeSantis as a fundamentally flawed candidate, one who even the most well-funded operation could have only taken so far.

Instead of charting a new course for campaign strategy, Never Back Down may end up as a case study in how to not run a presidential bid.

“They wanted to have control of people who said yes and didn’t argue,” the early DeSantis supporter in New Hampshire said. “You had a lot of arrogance in that group.”

Unquestionably, they also had a historic amount of money.

From the beginning of the year through the end of June, the PAC spent $96.8 million, according to the group’s most recently available financial disclosures. After burning through some $34 million in the first months of the campaign—including $5.5 million on private jet travel—according to The New York Times, then-CEO Chris Jankowski had to release a memo in August attempting to calm donors worried about overspending.

But problems had already sprouted up on multiple fronts. Donors had begun souring on DeSantis. The first round of layoffs hit the campaign on July 25—accounting for a third of the initial headcount—putting even more pressure on Never Back Down to carry the load.

Tim Miller, a former spokesperson for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast he sees parallels between DeSantis’ PAC playbook and the one that failed his former boss. GOP donors funneled over $110 million into Bush’s Right to Rise PAC at the start of the 2016 primary, only for him to get pummeled by Trump.

Though DeSantis is a flawed candidate, Miller said, Roe’s mistake with the PAC was doubling down on a “hybrid Jeb-Ted [Cruz] strategy eight years later,” and then “after it was clear the strategy was failing, they went out again to ask for more money.”

Miller, who operated under a similar setup on the Bush campaign with an outside group led by another Roe-type figure in Mike Murphy, said the logistical challenges between the two DeSantis entities were inevitable.

“I think there was a fundamental structural problem with having a strategist at a super PAC—who can’t legally talk to the candidate—having so much control,” Miller said, “and having that strategist not be a close personal aide who has a close relationship with the candidate.”

Murphy and Bush, Miller argued, at least had a strong enough rapport beforehand to more or less know how the other would want to handle certain situations on messaging. However, “even despite the fact that Murphy and Jeb went way back, there were problems,” Miller said.

“There were times where we wished that Murphy was doing something different,” Miller said. “And it was hard to signal.”

A now-infamous memo where Roe tried to do just that—an attempt to hide a hoped-for strategic shift in plain sight—marked the beginning of the end for his tenure at the helm of the PAC.

In a private meeting with donors before the first debate in Milwaukee in August, Roe elaborated on the memo with an urgent plea: the PAC, which can raise unlimited funds, needed $50 million “in the next 60 days” to have a shot at beating Trump.

The memo, posted in an obscure corner of the Never Back Down website and first reported by the Times, became such a flashpoint that the Trump campaign began using it in a daily countdown email, dubbing it Roe’s “KISS OF DEATH,” marking each of those 60 days until the self-imposed deadline expired in late October.

It has since not gotten better for DeSantis, who is sliding behind Nikki Haley for the mantle of top Trump alternative in the primary. Now, Never Back Down staffers are mainly wondering where their next paycheck will come from.

Over the weekend at a country music concert in Las Vegas, one Never Back Down staffer had a confession for a Republican who is well-connected in Trump’s orbit.

According to the Trumpworld source, who requested anonymity to relay a private conversation, the DeSantis aide said they were bringing in $35,000 per month from Never Back Down. “If I got new business to offset that loss,” the DeSantis person said, “I would step off right now.”

The implication was clear. If there’s work to be had in Trump’s operation, the supposed DeSantis loyalist would be willing to jump ship.

Earlier in the year, Trump allies told The Daily Beast how they believed Roe—in bankrolling a DeSantis machine for the primary—“brought a mercenary army to a holy war.”

The entreaty in Las Vegas seemed to confirm the broader suspicion. “They’re political mercenaries,” the Trumpworld operative said. “They’ll do anything for cash.”

But time is running out. Arguing that Trump will have sewn up the primary by Super Tuesday on March 5, the MAGA operative said, “these people are wondering if it makes sense to get off now and have an opportunity at a contract in the future, or ride it out until the very end to collect their $10,000 a month.”

At this point, all that seems certain is that the last paychecks will go out, and that the epitaphs for the hyped Trump-killing Death Star will be written.

“The flaw here,” said the source familiar with Never Back Down, “was ego.”