DeSantis donors privately worry about campaign as Florida governor lags in 2024 polls

Key Points
  • Some of Ron DeSantis' fundraisers have recently heard concerns from donors about the trajectory of the the campaign.
  • The governor continues to lag former President Donald Trump in GOP primary polls.
  • Ken Griffin, the billionaire CEO of Citadel and previous DeSantis megadonor, "continues to assess the field."
Presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis waves to a crowd at a campaign event on June 2, 2023 in Gilbert, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford | Getty Images

A growing group of donors who have supported Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' run for president are worried about the trajectory of his campaign, even after he raked in $20 million since entering the race in May.

Despite those big fundraising numbers and his entry into the race on a wave of hype, DeSantis is lagging well behind frontrunner Donald Trump in polls. The Murdoch family, led by conservative Fox Corp. and News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch, reportedly is souring on DeSantis. And as concerns for DeSantis mount across the board, several donors have told fundraisers about their worries, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some donors are worried the polls indicate DeSantis has to climb a potentially insurmountable hill to overtake Trump, these people said. They're also worried that Trump has a huge lead over DeSantis when it comes to Republican congressional endorsements. DeSantis represented Florida in the House before he won the governor's office.

Many of the people declined to be identified in this story in order to speak freely about private conversations.

One megadonor, Ken Griffin, "continues to assess the field," according to a spokesperson for the billionaire Citadel CEO, referring to the GOP primary lineup. Former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina are among the other contenders.

"Nothing's changed" in Griffin's stance toward the election, said the spokesperson, Zia Ahmed, who also denied that the Citadel CEO is concerned about DeSantis' position in public polling.

Days after publication of this story, Ahmed provided CNBC with a statement from Griffin that notably did not mention any candidate currently running for president but gave insight into what the Citadel CEO is looking for in who he supports.

"My political participation is driven by values and policies, not poll numbers or personalities. I will continue to support candidates who relentlessly focus on policy solutions that ensure future generations can achieve the American Dream," Griffin said in a statement provided to CNBC on Saturday. "I care deeply about all children having access to a high-quality education, preserving American competitiveness, guarding personal liberties, ensuring our communities are safe and secure, fiscal prudence, and maintaining America's leadership role on the global stage. I am committed to America being the greatest democracy in the world."

Griffin had told Politico in November that he was prepared to back DeSantis if he ran for president. "He has a tremendous record as governor of Florida, and our country would be well-served by him as president," Griffin said then. Semafor reported in April that Griffin was sticking with DeSantis, but The New York Times reported that same month the billionaire was still evaluating the Republican primary race and that his spokesman declined to say what Griffin thought about the presidential race. 

Griffin gave over $100 million in the 2022 midterms mainly toward Republicans running for state and federal races, including $5 million toward DeSantis' successful run for reelection in Florida.

It's unclear whether Griffin has contributed to pro-DeSantis entities such as Never Back Down, a super PAC backing DeSantis' run for president. When asked about the top individual donors to that PAC, a person fundraising for the group did not mention Griffin.

Instead, the person named former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman and VillageMD co-founder and executive Clive Fields, among others. Businessman Robert Bigelow told Time in April he had given over $20 million to Never Back Down.

The super PAC has raised $130 million since the committee launched in March. Yet more than half of that total came from a transfer of $82.5 million from a state-level political committee once controlled by DeSantis.

Braman, who has an estimated net worth of $3 billion and backed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., when he ran for president, donated $75,000 to the DeSantis now-defunct state committee that transferred money to the Never Back Down PAC, according to campaign finance records. Braman's company, Braman Motors, contributed $100,000 to the state-based DeSantis PAC, as well, according to the records.

Braman did not return multiple requests for comment. Fields did not return a request for comment. Griffin's spokesman did not say whether the Citadel CEO contributed to the PAC.

Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, did not deny any element of this story.

"You could wallpaper the governor's residence with the amount of premature political obituaries written about Ron DeSantis. Challenging the establishment is never easy – and this campaign to save our nation is going to be a long, hard-fought battle to defeat Joe Biden," Romeo said. "We are building an organization that will go the distance. Ron DeSantis is putting in the work to win, and as voters across the country continue to learn about his forward-looking plans to reverse Biden's failures, he will earn the nomination." 

Romeo also pointed CNBC to the campaign being endorsed by 259 state legislators.

Dave Vasquez, a spokesman for Never Back Down, touted DeSantis' fundraising success in a statement to CNBC.

"$150 million was just raised to elect Governor Ron DeSantis the next President of the United States," Vasquez said shortly after publication of this story. "That combined haul is the largest in one single quarter out of any candidate in this primary. Not only are we outpacing the competition in fundraising, we're already lightyears ahead of the field when it comes to infrastructure on the ground – that's what makes everyone going up against Governor DeSantis so nervous."

DeSantis fundraisers push back

Despite donors' concerns, several DeSantis fundraisers are privately pushing back on their worries, including by noting that national polling doesn't mean anything when it comes to state primaries, some of the people said.

For now, the DeSantis camp is mainly focused on early primary and caucus states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Early polling suggests that DeSantis is behind Trump in those states, as well, but that could change as the contests approach.

"There's always someone that will complain about something but Gov. DeSantis is running an energetic campaign and introducing himself to early state voters," Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor and DeSantis bundler, told CNBC. "I still think he wins Iowa and New Hampshire in the end."

The Iowa caucus is scheduled for January.

While things are looking dire for DeSantis at the moment, it's still relatively early in the race. The GOP primary debate scheduled for August could boost DeSantis. Trump and his aides have said he likely won't take part in the debate. DeSantis has said he will debate in August, regardless if Trump shows up or not.

Hal Lambert, who once raised money for Trump's campaigns for president and is now helping DeSantis, told CNBC that he's on text message chain with about six other donors and hasn't heard any issues from them.

"I would say to you this, the people that are worried about polls, evidently haven't been involved with presidential campaigns before," Lambert said. "These national polls are close to meaningless."

He added that no perceived issues with the campaign are holding DeSantis back from aiming to raise big money throughout the summer. DeSantis has a fundraiser in the posh Hamptons on Long Island this month, as CNBC reported in June.

Lambert said there are fundraising events coming up in Colorado, Utah and Wisconsin, among other states. A different person familiar with the Colorado event said it will be this month in the ski town of Aspen, which is known to attract some of the wealthiest people in the world.

DeSantis is scheduled to head to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in late July for a fundraiser, according to an invite to the gathering. Geoffrey Rehnert, the co-CEO of Audax Group and former executive at Bain Capital, is listed as a co-host for the event.