Jun 30, 2022 - Politics & Policy

DeSantis backers plot early 2024 boost

Photo illustration of Ron Desantis, White House and abstract textures.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Ronda Churchill/Getty Images

A new political group led by veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins is looking to jump-start a potential Ron DeSantis presidential bid with a legally extraordinary attempt to beef up his donor contact list, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The group, Ready for Ron, says it plans to gather the names and contact information of more than 1 million DeSantis supporters nationwide by the end of the year — then provide that potent political asset, free of charge, to the DeSantis camp.

  • Campaign finance experts say its proposed tactics are legally questionable, and, if accepted by federal regulators, would remake how candidates "test the waters" before runs at public office.

Driving the news: Ready for Ron, which Rollins founded in May, detailed its plans in a letter to the Federal Election Commission last month. It asked for an official ruling on the tactics it plans to use to boost a potential White House bid by the Florida governor.

  • The group is gathering petition signatures urging DeSantis to run for the White House, boosted by digital and TV ads and plans for other promotions via billboards, blimps and even skywriting.
  • Ready for Ron told the FEC it expected to collect names, ZIP codes, email addresses and phone numbers for nearly 60,000 people by the end of June, and "well over a million" by the end of the year.
  • Its plan is to turn over that petition — along with the contact info for each of its signatories — to the DeSantis camp, either before or after he's declared his candidacy.
  • If he doesn't run, the group says it will give the information to the 2024 Republican presidential nominee.

The intrigue: That's not an uncommon tactic. But Ready for Ron's proposed approach would test the bounds of campaign finance laws.

  • Ordinarily, any independent group that wants to give such a list to a candidate must either report it as an in-kind contribution or receive a fair market value payment.
  • Ready for Ron told the FEC neither should be required, as the petition it plans to share with the DeSantis camp would merely be a public communication in support of DeSantis' candidacy, and unbound by campaign contribution limits.
  • Even granting it is a contribution, Ready for Ron's position is that it's acting as a conduit for each individual signatory, whose signatures would be their own contributions — for roughly $0.05 each — to DeSantis.

What they're saying: "I don’t see how you could get three [FEC] votes for this advisory opinion — at least as it applies to a possible DeSantis campaign once it begins the testing the waters stage," said campaign finance attorney Brett Kappel.

  • "The FEC has repeatedly held that a mailing list is a 'thing of value' under [the Federal Election Campaign Act] and therefore subject to the contribution limits for in-kind contributions."
  • Those rules apply even before a candidate officially declares, according to Saurav Ghosh, the director for federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center.
  • “Federal campaign finance law has long required that funds raised or spent to explore a potential run for federal office must comply with federal rules, including source and amount restrictions on contributions to the prospective candidate," he said.

Asked about Ready for Ron's legal rationale, the group's attorney, Lilian Rodriguez-Baz, told Axios: "Ultimately, it's our position that the FECA doesn't trump the Constitution."

  • "I think our arguments are sound and compelling," she added, "and we look forward to the FEC correctly ruling in our favor."

Be smart: Ready for Ron's decision to seek an advisory opinion signals it will only go forward with the plan if the FEC signs off.

  • If the panel balks, DeSantis' team would likely have to pay fair market value for the group's list — which, by its own calculations, would be in excess of $50,000.

The bottom line: Even so, a list of DeSantis supporters primed to respond to fundraising and activation appeals would be a formidable asset with which to kick off a 2024 White House bid.

  • It would be all the more valuable given the behemoth list under the control of former President Trump, whom DeSantis may have to best for the GOP nomination.
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