TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As Ron DeSantis gears up for a likely 2024 White House bid — with or without Donald Trump in the race — the Florida governor is winning over some of the former president’s biggest benefactors.
DeSantis has attracted the attention of some of the nation’s wealthiest Republican donors, including many who were key financiers of Trump’s re-election bid or backers of high profile Republican candidates and causes, according to POLITICO analysis of campaign finance data.
A DeSantis-aligned political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, has received $3.4 million this election cycle from 10 donors who collectively spent $24 million on Trump’s re-election bid. Most of the high-dollar donors had never given contributions in state-level Florida elections, while those who have previously provided funds have significantly increased their spending for DeSantis during the 2022 midterms.
Though many donors are focused on November, when the governor is up for reelection, DeSantis’ fundraising signals that he is both a viable 2024 candidate who may not need the former president’s backing and one who is sapping some financial support from Trump.
“I think Ron’s fundraising really speaks for itself,” said Francis Rooney, a former construction company owner, longtime Republican donor and former Florida congressman who was open to impeaching Trump in 2019. “It is possible Trump’s percentage of the Republicans keeps going down and I think it’s possible people will start looking elsewhere.”
DeSantis has already raised more than $100 million — a record setting pace for a single election cycle in Florida — and is an overwhelming favorite to win re-election this year, a victory that could leave him with a huge war chest as the 2024 election cycle begins.
DeSantis has long been expected to run for president in 2024 but over the past year has drastically expanded his national footprint and following among conservatives across the country, who were drawn to his anti-shut down Covid-19 policies and staunch opposition to pandemic-related mandates. He has recently started to run neck-and-neck with Trump or even beaten the former president in early 2024 straw polls, leaving some of the GOP’s biggest donors writing huge checks for DeSantis at a time when that could still come with political risk.
“I know a lot of donors who are kind of in wait-and-see mode,” said Shiree Verdone, who served as Trump’s campaign co-chair in Arizona for both his presidential campaigns. “They really, really like DeSantis, who is very popular, but you don’t want to upset Trump.”
Major Trump donors contributing to DeSantis since his 2018 campaign for governor includes William Buckley, a retired venture capitalist with a home in Lost Tree Village — a wealthy Palm Beach County enclave that’s home to some of the nation’s largest political donors. Buckley gave $1 million. Major GOP donor Richard Uihlein, an Illinois-based businessman who supported DeSantis in 2018, contributed $700,000 to the governor four years ago. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have given $1.2 million in 2022.
Since his first campaign for governor, DeSantis’ committee has also received $500,000 from Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus — double what he gave DeSantis in 2018 — and $100,000 each from Steven Witkoff, real estate investor, and Willis Johnson, a Tennessee billionaire who founded a vehicle auction and salvage company. Neither had previously given significantly to any Florida candidate.
Las Vegas Casino mogul and Trump friend Phil Ruffin has also given DeSantis $100,000 this cycle, double what he gave the governor four years ago.
Johnson is supporting DeSantis financially, but has also signaled his support for other potential 2024 Republican candidates, including South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. He funded Noem’s efforts to send 50 South Dakota National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, something several Republican governors, including DeSantis, did last year to try and spotlight the Biden administration’s border policies.
John North, chief financial officer of Copart, the company Johnson founded, said Johnson “isn’t interested” in discussing his support for Trump or political contributions.
Trump’s team, as they have in the past, brushed off any suggestion that their key donors giving heavily to DeSantis indicates they would not support any future Trump White House run.
“Like other candidates who have been propelled to victory thanks to the endorsement of President Trump, Governor DeSantis is among a large group of elected officials from across the country who continue to benefit from President Trump’s MAGA movement,” said Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich.
Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis four years ago via a Tweet helped make him Florida governor in 2018.
DeSantis’ campaign did not return a request seeking comment.
Texas oil baron Kelcy Warren, who spent $10 million backing Trump in 2020, has also given DeSantis $50,000, his first contribution to the governor. Another $35,000 has come from Larry Garatoni, an Indiana businessman who gave $500,000 to support Trump and has not previously given to DeSantis, and Geoffrey Palmer, a Los Angeles developer, has given DeSantis $20,000 this cycle. He spent $6 million in 2020 to help Trump’s re-election.
Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire, has also given DeSantis $100,000 this cycle compared to $3,000 in 2018. Yass is not a Trump donor, but has given millions to Republican causes in recent election cycles, including more than $20 million in 2020 to Club for Growth, a conservative group whose vice president of government affairs is Scott Parkinson, who was DeSantis’ chief of staff when he was in Congress.
“Mainly occupied with Celtics-Warriors,” Yass said via email, referring to the NBA finals, when POLITICO asked about his support for DeSantis.
The Florida governor is also drawing huge political support from mega GOP donors who said they would not support Trump in the future, most notably Ken Griffin, the billionaire founder of Chicago-based Citadel LLC. He has been one of DeSantis’ biggest benefactors, giving $5 million in both the 2018 and 2022 election cycles. He did not contribute to Trump in 2020, and has publicly said he will not support him moving forward.
Likewise, Rooney — who was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the Holy See and decided not to run for re-election to congress after publicly saying he was open to supporting Trump’s first impeachment — also suggested Trump is facing headwinds.
“The guy is so mercurial,” Rooney said of Trump. “And there are so many things floating around from lawsuits to the January 6 stuff. If the primary were today, Trump gets it, but I think his popularity is going down.”
There are mega-Republican donors who are taking a liking to DeSantis as he rises through the national Republican ranks but warn it’s very early in the 2024 election cycle and candidates who peaked too early sputtered out before really taking off.
“In regard to Gov. DeSantis, I have met him and have followed his career,” said Art Pope, a North Carolina businessman who has long been a huge Republican donor but has not given to Trump. “He has excellent qualifications to be president, including serving in the U.S. military, Congress and being a governor. His handling of Florida during the pandemic was very strong.”
Pope, who also chairs the influential Bradley Foundation, which helps fund right-leaning nonprofits across the country, said DeSantis has momentum but Republicans have a long line of potential 2024 nominees who are still very much in the mix.
“I think very highly of Mike Pence. He was chairman of the Republican Study Committee, was governor of Indiana and, obviously, vice president of the United States,” Pope said. “He was one of the strongest points of the Trump administration.”
“He followed his constitutional duty,” said Pope, referencing Pence’s opposition to overturning the 2020 election.
He also mentioned potential 2024 candidates like Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.
He noted, as a cautionary tale, that at one point in 2008 Rudy Giuliani was seen as a presidential frontrunner.
“There is a history of people who can surge forward, raise a lot of money, do well in some of the early polls, but eventually fade,” he said.
He noted DeSantis has an advantage because being a sitting governor gives him a large platform, but said there is a lot of Republican cash still on ice.
“Right now there is a lot of money on the sidelines because we are still in 2022, not 2024,” he said. “I am getting phone calls about the presidential race, but it’s not my main focus right now.”