DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley are increasingly outsourcing central parts of their campaigns, drawing on the growing urgency of Donald Trump opponents to find a single alternative to the former president.
Struggling to energize his campaign, DeSantis this week privately encouraged his donor network to support a newly formed super PAC that’s taking over advertising responsibilities. That’s after a leadership shakeup at the pro-DeSantis super PAC that for months has been handling the bulk of both his advertising and his get-out-the-vote operation.
At the same time, Haley’s self-described “scrappy” political campaign, which has never enjoyed the same level of funding or manpower as DeSantis’ operation, won the support of the the Koch network, the largest conservative grassroots organization in the nation. By week’s end, scores of Koch-backed activists are expected to begin advocating on Haley’s behalf at the doorsteps of tens of thousands of Republican primary voters.
The extraordinary reliance on independent groups for the two Republicans who increasingly appear to be Trump’s closest challengers is testing the practical and legal limits of modern-day presidential campaigns. And with less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, neither candidate has shown the ability to disrupt Trump as he appears on a glide path to another presidential nomination.
“Personally, I’d rather see that all of this is put together under a campaign so that the candidate has responsibility for everything. But this is just the way the game is played today,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a well-known Iowa evangelical leader who has endorsed DeSantis. “If that’s the way you get your big money in, that’s the way you get your big money in.”
DeSantis has relied on outside support perhaps more than any major candidate since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 paved the way for super PACs, which are committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money without having to disclose their donors. Federal law prohibits candidates and their formal campaigns from coordinating directly with super PACs.
DeSantis publicly committed to visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties, a traditional measure of commitment to the first state in the GOP calendar.
Never Back Down, the original super PAC supporting him, followed suit. While DeSantis will visit Jasper County — his 99th — with a campaign event Saturday, Never Back Down has chauffeured him to 92 of the other counties, according to the super PAC’s schedule.
The super PAC has also paid for the bulk of his TV ads and almost all of his organizing. And as DeSantis has struggled to meet initial expectations and fallen in national polls, both the campaign and Never Back Down have overhauled their strategies without DeSantis being able to direct all of the resources supporting him.
During the first week of August, DeSantis traveled to more than a dozen Iowa counties on the bus chartered by Never Back Down with the super PAC’s top tactician, David Polyansky, on board. They traveled together for hours over the course of three days covering more than 200 miles.
On Aug. 8, the DeSantis campaign announced a staff shakeup, replacing its campaign manager and hiring Polyansky from the super PAC to serve as deputy campaign manager. Polyansky is an Iowa campaign veteran who has worked on several presidential campaigns in the state.
DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said it was “totally false” to assert that DeSantis coordinated any campaign strategy with the super PAC.
In the memo to donors this week, DeSantis’ campaign manager James Uthmeier promoted both Never Back Down and a new pro-DeSantis super PAC, Fight Right, noting that 100% of Fight Right’s proceeds would be spent on television advertising.
“As Donald Trump and Nikki Haley work side-by-side spending tens of millions of dollars to attack Ron DeSantis, Fight Right’s emergence provides welcomed air support,” Uthmeier wrote in the memo obtained by The Associated Press. “In the final push for the Iowa Caucus victory, this campaign will proudly fight alongside NBD’s impressive ground game, and Fight Right’s television team, to show the people of Iowa that this is a time for choosing, and Ron DeSantis is the candidate that can WIN!”
Such language may not technically violate campaign finance laws that prevent direct coordination, but they may violate their common sense interpretation, said Shanna Ports, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan watchdog group.
“When we see this kind of activity, there are some alarm bells that go off,” Ports said. “This does blur the lines between the campaign and the super PACs, particularly when you see super PACs taking on traditional campaign functions.”
Haley, too, is leaning heavily on outside groups to run traditional campaign functions — particularly her door-to-door canvassing operation, which is critical in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Haley’s team privately acknowledges that they need help on the ground in early primary states, where DeSantis and Trump have much larger operations. It also remains unclear whether she has the funding to challenge Trump or DeSantis should the nomination fight go deep into the spring.
The Haley campaign announced last month that it was planning to invest $10 million in a massive advertising campaign across Iowa and New Hampshire. As of Wednesday night, the Haley campaign has reserved just $4.7 million in advertising, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm.
When asked about the discrepancy, spokesperson Nachama Soloveichik said the full $10 million investment “will come.”
The Koch network’s support could fill in some of the campaign’s gaps.
Just days after their endorsement, the Kochs have already begun initial conversations with the pro-Haley super PAC known as the SFA Fund on how best to coordinate their efforts. While campaigns and outside groups cannot coordinate legally, outside groups can coordinate amongst each other.
In a conference call this week, the Koch network’s political lieutenant, Emily Seidel, outlined plans to boost Haley’s primary and general election prospects with strategic advertising investments, mailers and voter contacts through the group’s network of thousands of conservative activists. Meanwhile, the pro-Haley SFA Fund is focusing largely on television ads.
Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ political arm, has 10 full-time staffers in Iowa and a much larger network of volunteers, according to state director Drew Klein. He said he expects teams of roughly 100 activists to be knocking doors on Haley’s behalf by the end of the week.
Just six weeks before the first primary votes are cast, Trump’s foes acknowledge they are running out of time. For now, Haley appears to be winning new interest from donors and voters open to a Trump alternative.
She drew the largest crowd of her campaign Monday with about 2,500 people at a town hall in her native South Carolina. On Wednesday, more than 100 people packed into a small taproom to see her in New Hampshire, some straining around rustic wood posts and beams to catch a glimpse.
Haley, who spoke for roughly 40 minutes then took questions for less than 15, did not mention either her endorsement this week from Americans for Prosperity or her recent momentum in early-state polls.
When she opened by asking how many were seeing her for the first time, nearly every hand shot up.
“Where have y’all been?” she quipped.
Peoples reported from New York, Ramer from Meredith, New Hampshire.
Steve Peoples, Thomas Beaumont And Holly Ramer, The Associated Press