Facing a long summer of running from behind former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is for now resisting calls to dramatically change course in his presidential campaign, instead targeting the first debate in late August as his opportunity to alter the trajectory of the race.
Multiple sources told CNN that the DeSantis campaign doesn’t anticipate national polls fluctuating much before then – leaving him largely in the same position he has been since entering the race seven weeks ago: a well-funded second-place contender who is far ahead of most of the field but trailing Trump considerably.
Some Republicans invested in his candidacy fear DeSantis is wasting valuable time to gain traction against the unprecedented campaign of a former president still popular with the GOP base. DeSantis, though, is urging patience, insisting it’s still very early in the political calendar.
DeSantis will convene top donors and fundraisers in South Florida next Friday for a retreat where his campaign will provide an update on the race, two sources with knowledge of the event told CNN. While the retreat has been on the schedule for weeks, it is taking on new urgency as DeSantis’ campaign seeks to assure its biggest benefactors it has a long-term strategy for toppling Trump.
“I never expected to just snap fingers and all of a sudden, you know, you win seven months before” voting happens, he told Fox’s Maria Bartiromo on Sunday. “You got to earn it and you got to work. And it requires a lot of toil and tears and sweat. And we’re going to do that.”
Managing expectations is an unfamiliar position for DeSantis, whose sharp ascent to Republican stardom was fueled in part by a self-assured swagger and an unrelenting style. Donors gravitated toward DeSantis’ confidence as he was anointed the future of the party after winning reelection by nearly 20 points last November.
But his national poll numbers have remained flat since he entered the race in late May in the face of an expanding field of candidates, even as he and a supportive super PAC have poured millions into advertisements.
Publicly, DeSantis in several recent interviews has downplayed the significance of national polls and dismissed suggestions that the campaign is slipping away from him as a “media narrative.” Privately, DeSantis’ campaign remains adamant that he is the only viable alternative to Trump, and they are closely watching how other contenders who don’t qualify for the first debate on August 23 respond to the setback.
DeSantis’ campaign has already surpassed the donor threshold requirement of 40,000 unique donors and appears on track to meet the polling threshold as well. At least one candidate that DeSantis’ team was monitoring, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, announced Wednesday that he has reached more than 40,000 donors.
The governor isn’t planning a grand gesture to regain momentum, a source familiar with the planning told CNN. DeSantis will continue to campaign in early nominating states, attend GOP cattle calls, fundraise and speak with key local and national media outlets. On Friday, he’ll address the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, where Christian conservatives will gather to hear from most of the GOP field – except, notably, Trump. Iowa has become a greater focal point for DeSantis, who will also hold campaign events there Friday and Saturday.
DeSantis’ political team expects his activity in the coming weeks may look subdued compared to other candidates who may need an attention-grabbing moment to attract donors and support to meet the debate requirements.
“That’s not an easy walk in the park thing for a lot of folks,” the source said. “You may see them go heavier and harder than the governor will because they’re trying to make a debate stage.”
In a radio interview Monday, DeSantis said his campaign was making progress and focusing on “how you actually accumulate the delegates.” His campaign declined to elaborate on its delegate strategy.
Calls for more urgency despite DeSantis’ robust warchest
However, DeSantis has confronted calls from some Republicans to display more urgency or at least a change in approach. Conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted this week that he is hearing consistent “frustration about the DeSantis campaign” from various corners of the GOP and “the perception is settling in that something needs to happen.”
In a follow up to his tweet, Erickson wrote for online subscribers: “The longer DeSantis does not seem to shift momentum, the more it becomes harder to get that momentum. People want a winner, DeSantis appeared to be a winner, but doubts are growing.”
While people close to his political operation say they don’t see any shakeups on the horizon, they also cautioned that DeSantis is prone to change gears at a moment’s notice and he has shuffled through staff in the past.
The criticism comes amid troubling signals from the political machine looking to elect DeSantis. Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting his presidential campaign, stopped running advertisements in New Hampshire, a key early nominating state. Meanwhile, the group’s spokesman, Steve Cortes, recently acknowledged that DeSantis is “way behind.”
“I’ll be the first to admit that,” Cortes said during a Twitter spaces event earlier this month. “I believe in being really blunt and really honest. It’s an uphill battle. I don’t think it’s an unwinnable battle by any stretch.”
DeSantis’ team, though, contends it has the resources to compete for the long haul. His campaign recently announced it raised $20 million since launching part way through the second quarter, which ended in June, while Never Back Down has amassed $130 million.
“That hasn’t even been deployed yet,” DeSantis said this week of his warchest.
However, most of that money is in the form of an $83 million transfer from DeSantis’ former state political committee to Never Back Down. One fundraiser close to the campaign said the financial advantage DeSantis has built over the rest of the non-Trump contenders has given him wiggle room to weather early mistakes. But the fundraiser added that some donors are still waiting on the sidelines for a clearer signal about DeSantis’ trajectory.
Those close to his campaign also continue to insist that people will gravitate to DeSantis the more they get to know him and once more voters are paying attention. They often point to the size of his crowds as a sign of unprecedented enthusiasm for a first-time candidate.
Phillip Huffines, a Texas businessman and one-time Trump donor, said DeSantis impressed a group of 150 Republicans at a recent fundraiser in Dallas with his stamina, youth and performance in past Florida elections.
“When one looks objectively at who can beat Biden, it’s going to be DeSantis,” Huffines said. “We already had a match with Biden and Trump. Trump turns out Democrats better than anybody. DeSantis will be able to articulate more clearly what Republicans stand for and he’s not going to be bogged down with the other stuff that Trump brings to the election.”
A ‘classic governor’s mistake’
Others have cautioned that DeSantis is leaning too much on his Florida story and not enough on his vision for the country. One Republican consultant who has worked on presidential campaigns said DeSantis was making a “classic governor’s mistake” by talking extensively about his past accomplishments.
“Put bluntly, people in Ohio or Iowa do not want to be Florida, they don’t care about Florida, and they are tired of hearing about Florida,” Erickson wrote to his subscribers.
Jeff Angelo, an influential conservative radio host in Iowa, said DeSantis risks coming off as “too technocratic.”
“DeSantis’ weakness is that he doesn’t tell a good emotional story about why he believes what he believes,” Angelo said. “You gotta give people all the feels.”
DeSantis has made modest adjustments to address some of the early chatter about his campaign. After first pushing back against the suggestion he didn’t take questions from the audience at his stops, DeSantis hosted a handful of town halls to hear directly from Republican voters. He has attempted to have more one-on-one conversations with voters to improve his personal touch.
And DeSantis lately has offered a handful policy priorities for a first term, most notably a harsh crackdown on immigration that puts Trump on notice for failing to see through his past border promises. His campaign said to expect more policy rollouts in the weeks ahead and more focus on Biden’s economic record.
He has also deployed his wife Casey on the campaign trail, launching “Mamas for DeSantis” to continue mobilizing women around parental and school issues. He has warmed to traditional media after keeping mainstream outlets at arm’s reach for most of his time as Florida governor. Meanwhile, he has sharpened his attacks on the former president, staking out positions to the right of Trump while insisting he cannot win a general election.
“First of all, I will beat Joe Biden, and second of all, I will actually deliver on all these things we’ve been talking about,” DeSantis told a Wisconsin radio show on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, his campaign shared on Twitter a video slamming Trump’s past vow to protect LGBTQ rights. The video featured clips of Trump expressing an openness to allowing Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, to use the bathroom of her choice at Trump Tower and including transgender women in Miss Universe, a beauty pageant he previously owned. DeSantis stood by the Tweet amid backlash, including from the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that represents LGBTQ conservatives, who called it “divisive and desperate.”
“I think identifying Donald Trump as really being a pioneer in injecting gender ideology into the mainstream, where he was having men compete against women in his beauty pageants, I think that’s totally fair game,” DeSantis said in an interview with Tomi Lahren.
However, one Republican fundraiser supportive of DeSantis said the video undermined one of his central arguments as a candidate: that he is more electable than Trump.
“People want to support Ron but don’t like this kind of stupid stuff,” the fundraiser told CNN. “There are people on his team who are trying to win petty wars that make Ron look stupid. If they get that taken care of and just let Ron and Casey be Ron and Casey, then they’ll be much better off.”