For those that don’t already know it, Donald Trump will be the first to say that it was his endorsement that catapulted then-Congressman Ron DeSantis into the lead in the GOP gubernatorial primary back in 2018. And Trump isn’t about to let the now-reelected governor forget it, either. But after the mind-blowing fundraising records set by DeSantis during the 2022 election cycle, DeSantis may owe Trump another thank you for helping him attract a cool $200 million or so.
Although, Trump’s assistance wasn’t exactly on purpose.
DeSantis fundraising was “adequate” in 2019 and 2020
Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and mere weeks after Joe Biden appeared to have defeated Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election, DeSantis’s reelection fundraising efforts could be described as “adequate.” At that point in time, He’d collected a decent sum of cash – $9 million – considered by astute political observers as a healthy, but not overly impressive sum. Considering that Charlie Crist’s political committee just finished the 2022 cycle with a grand total of about $13 million, a $9 million head start for DeSantis wasn’t too shabby.
But in January 2021, something – maybe everything – changed.
The January 6th inflection point
Against a backdrop of a nation aghast at the developments on January 6th in Washington D.C., DeSantis’s fundraising suddenly exploded. And it wasn’t a coincidence. In the first four months of the year, a time span when Democrats were out for election-denier scalps and most Republicans were at least privately cringing over what happened, the Friends of Ron DeSantis committee collected a whopping $23 million, more than doubling what he’d raised in the previous 26 months.
Most notably, those massive cash hauls weren’t just coming from Florida donors eager to garner influence in Tallahassee. By July 2021, DeSantis had hauled in millions more, giving him $44 million in the bank, with just under half of that total – 47 percent – coming from out of state donors. People who don’t need influence in Tallahassee.
DeSantis avoids the January 6th controversy, runs on his post-pandemic record
The money was flowing fast and furious, with a sizeable chunk from a network of major GOP donors who, especially in the aftermath of January 6th, viewed DeSantis as the most viable Trump alternative. Not only had DeSantis demonstrated strong leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, he also benefited from the fact that Florida had gone big for Trump in 2020, allowing DeSantis and other Florida leaders to avoid awkward conversations about the integrity of Florida’s elections process or whether they thought vote fraud played a role in Trump’s defeat. To that question, there were only two alternatives for Republicans in the hot seat: appease Trump and get blasted by the national media, or pay a price with the Trump base.
The much better alternative, and an easy choice for DeSantis: avoid the controversy altogether. Say with a straight face that Florida’s elections process had gone off without a hitch and that it should be a model for the country.
That’s a sharp contrast with other Republicans on the national stage who were forced to tap dance for both Trump and his rabid base, while facing tough questions from journalists eager to pin them down on the record. DeSantis avoided the awkwardness of having to thread the needle between toeing the Trumpian line and being classified as an “election denier.” Instead, he was able to thump his chest and proclaim that Florida had done things right and delivered for Trump, keeping the base off his back. That, combined with his pandemic leadership, put him in a unique position as a strong conservative leader without the baggage of the 2020 election dragging him off message.
From the point of view of a GOP mega-donor or a business executive looking for a viable alternative to the badly wounded Trump, DeSantis stood head-and-shoulders above his gubernatorial and senatorial peers. Something clearly gelled in the minds of the GOP’s wealthiest benefactors in the early weeks of 2021. Big checks started to roll in, DeSantis’s war chest swelled to an intimidating size, forcing national Democrats to take a hard look at the rapidly developing situation in Florida.
Ultimately, Democrats decided their dollars were better invested elsewhere, leaving Charlie Crist, Val Demings and a slew of vulnerable downballot candidates twisting in the wind. For that, Republicans have Trump to thank again, this time for his inadvertent help in transforming Ron DeSantis into a nationally viable political force whose fundraising and electoral coattails helped deliver a historic GOP victory on Tuesday night.