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Haley Campaign Press Release - The DeSantis DiSaster Continues

November 21, 2023

CHARLESTON, S.C. —The Ron DeSantis campaign admits its multiple attempts to attack Nikki Haley have backfired in spectacular fashion. Future attempts will have the same result.

According to NBC News, "The [DeSantis] super PAC pulled down its ads [attacking Haley] in Iowa after polling and focus groups showed they weren't working, according to two sources familiar with the decision. Even worse, Never Back Down's leaders concluded, the spots were backfiring on DeSantis."

Ron DeSantis' team was going after Nikki Haley. They turned on each other instead.

Haley's rise has posed an existential threat to DeSantis' candidacy, and his team has struggled with how to counter it.

By: Dasha Burns, Matt Dixon, Natasha Korecki, and Jonathan Allen
Online here

Leaders of Ron DeSantis' Never Back Down super PAC met privately last Tuesday to hash out a strategy for fighting Nikki Haley's rise in the polls. Instead, two of them nearly came to blows.

Jeff Roe, the top consultant for the super PAC, got into a heated argument with longtime DeSantis confidant Scott Wagner while a small group of nine board members and senior staff were discussing budgeting.

"You have a stick up your a--, Scott," Roe fumed at Wagner, who is a member of the Never Back Down board.

"Why don't you come over here and get it?" Wagner responded, rising from his chair. He was quickly restrained by two fellow board members. The interaction was relayed to NBC News by a source who was in the room.

The infighting represents an escalation in the long-running war between Never Back Down's professional political operatives and DeSantis' Tallahassee-based inner circle over who is to blame for the governor's failure to compete effectively with front-runner Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. DeSantis' monthslong tumble created an opening for Haley, whose surging poll numbers and newfound affection from megadonors pose an existential threat to the Florida governor's campaign.

DeSantis and his wife, Casey, have been among those increasingly upset at Never Back Down's leadership, according to two sources familiar with their thinking. And, after tempers flared at last week's meeting, three close DeSantis allies — David Dewhirst, Jeff Aaron and Scott Ross — launched a second super PAC, Fight Right Inc., in part at their urging.

Dewhirst until recently was an adviser in DeSantis' gubernatorial office, and he is a close ally of James Uthmeier, who was DeSantis' chief of staff before becoming his campaign manager. Aaron is a Florida lawyer, and Ross is a lobbyist.

"This is James taking over the money," one Republican source familiar with the decision-making process said of the power struggle that has emerged in the wake of Fight Right's creation.

The group began airing an ad in Iowa Tuesday that compares Haley to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — a favorite target of conservatives for more than three decades.

DeSantis' campaign, which cannot legally coordinate with either of the superPACs, portrayed Fight Right as a welcome entrant into the 2024 political arena and Never Back Down as an important ally.

"We are excited to see even more backers stepping up to support Ron DeSantis' candidacy," DeSantis campaign Communications Director Andrew Romeo said. "We've already seen tremendous value in the support of groups like Never Back Down, and adding new allies to the mix to independently help spread the governor's message will only strengthen our advantage in the important weeks and months ahead."

The rationale for establishing Fight Right Inc. is the one thing that does not appear to be in dispute: Never Back Down couldn't keep attacking Haley without hurting DeSantis.

The super PAC pulled down its ads in Iowa after polling and focus groups showed they weren't working, according to two sources familiar with the decision. Even worse, Never Back Down's leaders concluded, the spots were backfiring on DeSantis. Voters readily connected him to the super PAC, which has heavily promoted its sponsorship of his travel, his advertising and his grassroots organization.

Never Back Down branding "stuck like glue" to DeSantis, said a person familiar with the internal deliberations.

That was the impetus for a larger set of Never Back Down strategy meetings last week that were designed to hash out a strategy for creating momentum — or, at the very least, figure out how to bring down Haley without damaging DeSantis.

Those tension-filled meetings led to the heated exchange between Roe and Wagner and spun off additional opposition to seeding a new super PAC, Fight Right, with $1 million. Never Back Down Director Ken Cuccinelli, a former Trump administration official who made waves in March when he helped found the pro-DeSantis super PAC, emailed other board members objecting to a decision to "send $1m to a separate PAC to run attack ads on Nikki Haley," read one email sent Monday night and obtained by NBC News.

"The manner in which the Haley hit and its funding appears to be proceeding is exceedingly objectionable to me, and by this email I ask Cabell Hobbs, in his capacity as Board Secretary, to preserve this email as part of the board records," Cuccinelli continued.

A Never Back Down spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.

It's a continuation of the circular firing squad perception that has marred DeSantis' presidential campaign. When he entered the race in May, the governor was seen as the overwhelming favorite to pose the biggest threat to Trump — a prospect that was to be boosted by Never Back Down, which pledged to have a budget upward of $200 million.

That group has now poured in $100 million over the past nine months, a timeframe that saw DeSantis go from having front-runner-type prospects to trailing Trump by huge margins in most public polling, and increasingly losing ground to Haley in key early states. A Washington Post/Monmouth University poll released last week had DeSantis in fifth place in New Hampshire (at 7%), with Trump comfortably in first (46%) and Haley firmly in second (18%).

"I'm a bit agitated these guys have spent all this money for no return," one DeSantis contributor said in explaining the hesitation that deep-pocketed donors have when Never Back Down asks for more cash. "You don't just keep throwing money at Radio Shack."

Throughout that time, Never Back Down leadership and longtime DeSantis allies butted heads over strategic direction, a brewing bit of tension that led to the open hostilities between key advisers last week and ultimately the creation of a new committee led by DeSantis confidants.

"Ron has gone from being a super PAC puppet to having his own puppets with a super PAC," said a senior figure in DeSantis world who has lost faith in the campaign.

Nikki Haley, Haley Campaign Press Release - The DeSantis DiSaster Continues Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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