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DeSantis campaign shedding 38 staffers in bid to stay competitive through the fall

DeSantis campaign fires 38 staffers
DeSantis fires 38 staffers, insiders say campaign "has stagnated" 04:54

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is shaving more than a third of his campaign staff from the payroll in a move designed to keep him financially solvent into the fall. 

DeSantis, who is running in second place behind former President Donald Trump in most early-state primary and national polls but has slipped in recent surveys, has laid off 38 people since the start of the second quarter, his campaign confirmed Tuesday. 

"Following a top-to-bottom review of our organization, we have taken additional, aggressive steps to streamline operations and put Ron DeSantis in the strongest position to win this primary and defeat Joe Biden," campaign manager Generra Peck said in a statement. "Governor DeSantis is going to lead the Great American Comeback and we're ready to hit the ground running as we head into an important month of the campaign." 

The layoffs include 10 event staffers whose departures had already been announced, plus two senior advisers, Dave Abrams and Tucker Obenshain, who have left to launch an outside operation designed to provide logistical and event support to his bid. 

A DeSantis campaign official confirmed that Nate Hochman, a DeSantis speechwriter who had retweeted a pro-DeSantis video with Nazi imagery last week, is part of the group of staffers cut by the campaign Tuesday. "Nate Hochman is no longer with the campaign. And we will not be commenting on him further," a campaign official said. 

The other staffers are from "across all departments," three senior advisers to the campaign tell CBS News. One person said many of the 38 staffers were told about the changes on Wednesday, while others were informed earlier.

The advisers were granted anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak about the shakeup. 

"The campaign isn't shying away from taking the aggressive steps necessary to put Gov. Ron DeSantis in the best position possible as the campaign heads into the fall," one of the senior advisers said. "I think overall we've been upfront about the reset and we're leaning into it." 

DeSantis' fundraising

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2023 Christians United for Israel summit on July 17, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2023 Christians United for Israel summit on July 17, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia. Getty Images

DeSantis raised roughly $20 million in the fundraising quarter that ran from April to June, a haul earned mostly from high-dollar donors who contributed the maximum four figure sums possible to his primary and general election campaign accounts. With nearly 90 people on his payroll by the end of the quarter — a total considered bloated and premature by rival Republican and Democratic campaigns — his federal campaign spending report showed donations from people giving less than $200 lagging, a sign he is struggling to find "small-dollar" supporters willing to continue donating over the course of the primary campaign. 

The Florida governor, however, continues to benefit from one of the largest independent super PACs established to back a GOP presidential contender. Never Back Down PAC has amassed more than $130 million, primarily from funds he first raised last year as part of his gubernatorial reelection campaign that he was able to transfer.

The super PAC has been expected to shoulder much of the expensive and time-consuming work of organizing in the early states. It has hired hundreds of staffers to knock on doors in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, with plans to expand to the first 18 states set to hold primaries. On Thursday and Friday, DeSantis is set to appear at a series of public events hosted by Never Back Down in Iowa, and despite federal laws barring his campaign's direct coordination with the super PAC, he is expected to ride aboard a bus owned and operated by the PAC in between the events.

Last weekend, DeSantis and his campaign held a retreat for about 70 donors in Utah, where Peck and top officials acknowledged in a briefing they had "raised a lot but still spent too much" and talked about building a "meaner, leaner campaign," according to two attendees. The adjustment included cutting unnecessary spending that would divert funds from campaign ads and activities in the early presidential primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

"The way that she put it is, 'We placed a lot of bets early, some of them worked. Some of them didn't. What we're doing going forward is going to be more tactical in that if something's not working, we're going to jettison it very quickly,'" Florida lobbyist and fundraiser Nick Iarossi said.

Examples of excess spending cited by the campaign at the retreat included large-scale campaign events and fundraisers that required DeSantis to travel, an indication that more digital fundraisers, instead of in-person ones, could be on the table. More than $5.6 million of the itemized spending in the latest DeSantis campaign finance report was dedicated to travel or related expenses, such as food or "event supplies," according to a CBS News analysis.

The campaign's fundraising schedule remains packed, with stops in Massachusetts, Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri scheduled through mid-August, according to two other people who received a copy of his fundraising schedule.

"What I like most about what I saw is, there's an acknowledgement of, 'We need to continue to get better,'" Iarossi said. "This is a group of folks and a candidate that wants to evolve and adapt as they learn things and as the landscape changes."

At the retreat, DeSantis did a "fireside chat" with his wife Casey DeSantis and attended the briefing that laid out the campaign's adjustments. He also attended a session with donors focused on the upcoming debate.

A mixed history of success

DeSantis is not the first Republican presidential contender to dramatically pare back in the opening months of a White House bid. But those who have done so carried on with mixed success.

In July 2007, with just $2 million left in his campaign coffers, Sen. John McCain let go roughly 80 staffers in a purge that many believed would quickly lead to his quick downfall. But McCain ultimately rallied to win the Republican presidential nomination about a year later. In October 2015, one-time Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush, similarly backed by a super PAC that amassed tens of millions of dollars, had to slash his campaign's payroll by about 40% and reassigned campaign headquarters staffers from Miami to the early primary states in a bid to save costs. He dropped out after the South Carolina primary, failing to win or place second in any early-state contest. 

Other GOP governors who began with broad national attention and intrigue among the party's base of support also quickly fizzled out amid financial woes. In 2011, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty withdrew about three months after beginning his 2012 presidential bid amid a serious cash shortfall. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who shot out to the front of the pack and raised millions at the start, withdrew from the 2016 contest by September 2015 before his campaign took on serious debt. 

Fin Gómez contributed to this report. 

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