Florida Governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis is the latest candidate to engage in one of the most flagrant campaign finance abuses affecting our modern elections: Unchecked coordination between candidates’ campaigns and “independent” super PACs.
As alleged in a complaint filed by Campaign Legal Center (CLC), DeSantis’s campaign appears to have made a direct request or suggestion to the super PAC Never Back Down, which has supported DeSantis’s candidacy for months, regarding its activities.
Reports indicate that DeSantis was frustrated that Never Back Down had stopped airing ads critical of former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley that the super PAC had been running in Iowa and New Hampshire. Intermediaries then conveyed DeSantis’s displeasure to the super PAC’s board, which relayed the message to staffers in charge of strategic decision-making.
That’s a clear example of the coordinating “conduct” that federal campaign finance laws prohibit: Campaigns working in cooperation, consultation, or concert with super PACs, including a candidate making a “request or suggestion” about where, when, and how a super PAC should be airing communications.
Coordination between candidates and supposedly independent election spending vehicles, which was made apparent in a recent report by CLC, has grown dramatically — along with the overall volume of “independent” election spending — since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC.
Coordination directly flouts the “independence” that was a crucial requirement for super PACs and other “independent” spending groups to pour millions of dollars into our elections.
In order to raise and spend unlimited sums of money on federal elections, including money from corporations and special interests, these groups must remain independent, and their election spending cannot be coordinated with candidates’ campaigns.
Unfortunately, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has repeatedly failed to enforce the laws prohibiting coordination between candidate committees and super PACs and has likewise failed to update these laws to close obvious gaps and confront emerging coordination tactics.
As a result, voters’ ability to meaningfully and equitably participate in our elections has been severely diminished. When super PACs and other outside spending groups are permitted to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns, they are effectively part and parcel of those campaigns — providing a route for corporations and special interests to circumvent federal contribution limits and disclosure requirements — all of which undermines voters’ interests and enhances special interests’ clout.
Never Back Down launched in February 2023 to support DeSantis’s campaign. By the end of July, it had raised more than $130 million, mostly in six- and seven- figure contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations, and a Florida state PAC, “Friends of Ron DeSantis,” established by DeSantis to support his gubernatorial campaigns.
This wasn’t the first time that the DeSantis campaign provided instructions to Never Back Down. Last summer, the campaign reportedly leaked a strategy memo that laid out the campaign’s messaging and advertising needs. This included a plan to focus on China as a domestic threat.
In addition, Never Back Down has effectively operated as fully sanctioned arm of the DeSantis campaign, with the supposedly “independent” group working to directly subsidize and underwrite DeSantis’s candidacy — paying a major portion of DeSantis’s travel and event costs, voter canvassing and data collection efforts, and more.
The super PAC has taken on many ground game responsibilities normally performed by candidate committees themselves, including sending mailers, organizing on campuses, and building crowds for DeSantis’s events. Never Back Down has even devised the governor’s strategy in battleground primary states.
The FEC must enforce the law and take action against the overt coordination scheme carried out by the DeSantis campaign and Never Back Down in order to ensure that big money, special interest donors backing super PACs aren’t able to directly underwrite candidates and drown out the electoral voices of everyday voters — preventing them from meaningful individual participation in American democracy.