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Six weeks before Iowa caucuses, DeSantis super PAC sees more personnel departures

Trump, DeSantis hold dueling Iowa campaign events
Trump, DeSantis hold dueling Iowa campaign events 00:38

In the hours after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wrapped up his tour of all 99 counties in Iowa on Saturday, a political milestone known as the "full Grassley," news broke of further shakeups at the super PAC supporting him, "Never Back Down."

Kristin Davison, who was named to be the PAC's CEO shortly after Chris Jankowski left the job in late November, was fired Saturday. Communications director Erin Perrine and operations director Matt Palmisano were also let go that evening, according to sources familiar with the moves. Politico, Semafor and the Associated Press were first to report on the three moves. 

On Friday, the PAC's chairman Adam Laxalt, who was DeSantis' roommate during their Naval officer training, departed the super PAC, according to a copy of his resignation letter obtained by CBS. This was first reported by The New York Times. 

Scott Wagner, a trial attorney and longtime ally of DeSants in Tallahassee, has been named as the super PAC's chairman of the board and interim CEO, according to an internal email sent Saturday. 

"Never Back Down has the most organized, advanced caucus operation of anyone in the 2024 primary field, and we look forward to continuing that great work to help elect Gov. DeSantis the next President of the United States," a Never Back Down spokesperson said in a statement. 

But the internal changes come less than six weeks until the crucial GOP caucuses in Iowa, where DeSantis has staked his campaign, making heavy investments in time and money.

"I think it's gonna help propel us to the nomination," DeSantis said of Iowa during an interview with NBC News on Sunday. "But I think we'll have a lot of work that we'll have to do beyond that."

While federal election laws bar coordination between a presidential super PAC and a campaign, due to the lack of fundraising limits for super PACs, Never Back Down has been key to laying the groundwork for DeSantis' run. The group started with a $82.5 million cash infusion from DeSantis' state political committee and has "hosted" DeSantis as a special guest for at least 93 events in Iowa alone, according to the super PAC.

Throughout the summer and most of the fall the super PAC transported DeSantis in its bus across the state, though the DeSantis campaign recently obtained a bigger bus it has been using more recently as well. They've fueled the door knocking operation in each state and are often seen passing out "commitment to caucus" cards at every Iowa event, including those not hosted by them. 

Never Back Down recently hosted DeSantis Sunday for a meet-and-greet in Eldridge, Iowa, and at several events in New Hampshire on Monday.

"For a group named Never Back Down, it sure seems everyone is backing out," said Taylor Budowich, the CEO of Trump's super PAC Make America Great Again Inc. after news of Laxalt's departure. 

In a statement released Monday, Trump's campaign says the "drama surrounding the implosion of his Super PAC, Always Back Down, has completely upended his campaign."

"DeSanctus has given the reins over to Wagner – his former roommate – because nothing says success like some random guy who has no idea what he's doing," writes Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung. 

DeSantis' campaign and allies dismissed the noise surrounding the personnel moves and voiced confidence in the super PAC's ground game.

"The collective firepower of Team DeSantis remains unmatched. As the last three Iowa Caucus winners have shown, it takes a combination of hard work, air support, and grassroots organizing to win," said deputy campaign manager David Polyansky.

"Not a single vote, not one vote in America will shift one way or the other because of personnel changes at PACs. That is utterly irrelevant," said Ken Cucinelli, a former Trump official who  launched the super PAC, during an interview over the weekend on Newsmax. 

A senior campaign official echoed this sentiment, saying, "The termination of operatives that not a single Iowan can name isn't relevant to our historic ground game and momentum in the state."

But there's been longstanding tension between DeSantis loyalists and PAC leadership over their strategy, as DeSantis continues to trail far behind former President Donald Trump in polling. 

A memo and several internal polls released by the PAC before the first presidential debate in August stirred anger from the campaign. During a meeting in November at the super PAC's headquarters in Atlanta, Never Back Down strategist Jeff Roe and Wagner got into a shouting match over the direction of the PAC, according to sources familiar with the incident. This was first reported by NBC News. 

Recently, DeSantis' campaign signaled they want the outside group to continue its ground work and suggests another outside group, "Fight Right, Inc.," should handle advertisements.

"Without question, NBD's robust organization is unrivaled in its ability to mobilize supporters and get out the vote," DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier wrote in a Nov. 27 memo, adding the PAC welcomes Fight Right's involvement in "fighting for Ron DeSantis through powerful TV advertising."

Fight Right, Inc. was created after the November incident between Roe and Wagner, and after disagreement aboutNever Back Down's handling of attack ads against former Ambassador Nikki Haley, according to a person familiar with its creation. 

The new super PAC is led by three Florida-based allies of DeSantis: David Dewhirst, who is listed as a senior adviser to DeSantis, Jeff Aaron and lobbyist Scott Ross. Blake Harris, a former senior political adviser to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott during his presidential run, has also joined the group as a general consultant. 

"Fight Right exists for one purpose: to shed light on the failed records and leadership of Governor DeSantis's opponents. We plan to do so by flooding the zone with strategic tv advertisements," the group's website reads. 

Fight Right has spent over $1.7 million on T.V. advertisements, with $1.5 million of that in Iowa markets, according to advertisement tracking firm AdImpact. 

Its only ad up so far ties Haley to former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by airing clips of Haley saying Clinton was part of why she entered politics. PolitiFact deemed this a false ad, noting that it omitted lines where Haley says she disagrees with Clinton politically.

Never Back Down has spent over $42 million on its own advertising throughout the campaign cycle, according to AdImpact. 

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