DeSantis Indicates Privately he Intends to Run in 2024 as Allies Prepare

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) holds a rally at the OCC Road House and Museum in Pinellas Park, Fla., on Wednesday.

DAVENPORT, Iowa – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has indicated privately that he intends to run for president, according to two people familiar with his comments.

A super PAC that seeks to draft DeSantis into the race launched Thursday and is likely to serve as an approved outside spending vehicle for his campaign, three people familiar with the planning said.

And DeSantis will visit the early nominating states of Iowa on Friday and Nevada on Saturday as he tours the country promoting his memoir.

The public and private movements underline how far along DeSantis and his allies are in their preparation for the 2024 campaign, even as the Florida governor has not said publicly that he will enter the race.

Allies do not expect him to announce a run until after the Florida state legislative session ends in May. But in recent conversations, DeSantis has described his presidential plans without any caveats that would suggest he’s still deciding, according to the two people familiar with his comments who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private remarks.

The governor will appear here in Davenport, Iowa, on Friday and will be in Las Vegas on Saturday.

The pro-DeSantis super PAC that announced its formation Thursday, called Never Back Down, is led by Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump administration, and Chris Jankowski, a veteran GOP operative and former official at the Republican State Leadership Committee. Approval of Cuccinelli’s group is not a forgone conclusion, but it is the likeliest vehicle for contributions from pro-DeSantis megadonors, three people familiar with the planning said.

Super PACs can receive unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations but are prohibited from coordinating their expenditures with campaigns. Still, candidates or campaigns will often signal their approval of a given super PAC so donors know where to direct their checks.

Representatives for DeSantis declined to comment on the super PAC and did not respond to other questions Thursday. Cuccinelli and Jankowski did not respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis concluded his reelection campaign with more than $70 million left in a state committee, according to Florida filings. Additional high-dollar contributions have arrived in the first two months of this year.

The governor’s advisers have been studying ways to use that money to power a presidential campaign, since it was raised under different rules than the ones governing federal campaigns, according to people familiar with the discussions. Transferring the money to a pro-DeSantis super PAC is seen as the likeliest option, said the people familiar with the planning.

Cuccinelli’s decision to align himself with DeSantis is notable given his past association with former president Donald Trump. In a video announcing the creation of Never Back Down, Cuccinelli encourages viewers to go to the group’s website – not just to urge DeSantis to run, but to “make it real” and “commit to what you will donate on day one to a DeSantis for president campaign.” He adds, “Let’s make the first day of that campaign a fundraising bonanza.”

Before he was aligned with Trump, Cuccinelli was a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who helped lead an effort to try to stop Trump by changing the rules at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Several groups have formed in recent months promising to convince DeSantis to enter the race for president. One, called Ready for Ron, has been collecting signatures from people favoring a DeSantis campaign. The group is asking a court to invalidate an advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission stating that providing the contact information of the signees to DeSantis’ team would violate federal campaign finance law.

Meanwhile, many of DeSantis’s recent events – including in Iowa and Nevada – are hosted by a nonprofit formed earlier this year called And to the Republic. The group, which is headed by longtime Michigan Republican operative Tori Sachs, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

DeSantis will be joined Friday by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who also recently appeared with GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is considering a presidential run. Reynolds was among several governors who last month attended a Florida retreat that DeSantis hosted for donors, elected officials and conservative influencers – just down the road from the Mar-a-Lago estate of Trump, who will also visit Iowa next week as he seeks another term in the White House.

Polls suggest DeSantis would enter the GOP presidential race at the front of the pack with Trump – but other Republicans are hoping they stumble, and more candidates might eventually join the field. DeSantis has also faced persistent whispers that he is not a natural glad-hander, making Iowa a high-profile test of his ability to engage in the retail politics expected in early primary states.

He will start his visit Friday morning at the Rhythm City Casino Resort in Davenport, then later head to the Iowa State Fairgrounds, a traditional destination for presidential candidates. On Saturday DeSantis will hit the night club Stoney’s Rockin’ Country in Las Vegas, joined by Adam Laxalt, a longtime friend of DeSantis who was the GOP nominee for Senate in Nevada last year.

DeSantis is touring the country to promote his memoir, released Feb. 28, on a circuit that has already taken him to Texas, California and Alabama as he pitches Florida as a “blueprint” for the rest of the country, clashes with blue-state leaders such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and courts donors and local party leaders. But unlike many other potential presidential candidates, he had previously steered clear of the earliest primary states where visits are bound to draw heightened scrutiny and signal greater interest in a 2024 run.

DeSantis has cast himself as a fighter against what he calls the “woke” left, building on his reputation for moving early to lift coronavirus restrictions and his successful push for legislation restricting school discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Recently he has tacked further to the right with additional moves to overhaul education – for instance, plans to ban diversity and inclusion programs at state colleges – and strident criticism of the coronavirus vaccines he once promoted, including a petition to investigate “wrongdoing” surrounding the shots.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” the governor declared at his “state of the state” address on Tuesday, setting the stage for a blockbuster state legislative session where Republican supermajorities can easily pass his agenda.

DeSantis’s remarks in Texas at the Dallas County Republican Party’s Reagan Day Dinner over the weekend resembled a campaign stump speech, according to attendees. Some found it an effective list of his state-level accomplishments, while others said it lacked gravitas or personality and came off as a lecture.

Trump will also give a policy speech in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday as he argues that he alone can deliver the “America First” agenda he popularized and used to transform the GOP. “In 2016, I declared I am your voice,” he said in a dark speech at this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where he won a 2024 straw poll handily. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”

Trump plans to discuss issues such as education and trade Monday and will take questions from reporters and attendees, according to his adviser Jason Miller, who said Trump has a “deep connection” with the people of Iowa. Miller said leaders from eastern Iowa will endorse the former president and that thousands of people are expected.

“We haven’t even started the rallies yet,” Miller said. “I think it’s a clear sign that the support level for President Trump is sky high.”

He also drew attention to DeSantis’s past openness to overhauling entitlement programs such as Social Security, among other policy positions. “If Gov. DeSantis does not address [those issues] in an early visit to the state of Iowa, and if he does not do extensive Q&A with local reporters or with local voters, I think that’ll raise some red flags,” he said.

Trump is planning an informal stop in Iowa similar to his recent surprise visits in South Carolina and Ohio, according to his team.

In Congress, DeSantis voted for three nonbinding budget resolutions calling for raising the retirement age and slowing future spending growth for Social Security. The governor recently distanced himself from those stances, telling Fox News: “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”

Trump’s relationship with DeSantis grew frosty as a 2024 clash loomed, and for months he has publicly attacked the governor as disloyal and sought to tie him to former Republican establishment figures such as former House speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin. DeSantis’s resounding reelection in Florida last November stood in stark contrast to some Trump-endorsed candidates’ underperformance, intensifying GOP calls for new party leadership and concerns that Trump would struggle in a general election.

DeSantis has largely declined to engage with Trump’s criticism and derisive nicknames. “I’m appreciative of a lot of things he did,” he told Fox News recently amid a blitz of friendly interviews for his book tour. “It doesn’t mean I agree with everything he’s doing lately.” He has pitched himself as an ardent advocate of much of Trump’s agenda and subtly suggested he is better poised to execute it.

At one early stop in the Villages, a heavily Republican retirement community in Florida, DeSantis touted his administration’s work to quickly rebuild bridges after a hurricane and suggested he could send people to the southern border to build a wall – an allusion to Trump’s key campaign promise from 2016.

“We’ll get it done,” DeSantis said to cheers.