There’s no Ron DeSantis presidential campaign yet, but there is a Donald Trump one and it’s attacking him daily. That makes “Never Back Down,” the top super PAC supporting his expected run, an especially crucial player — and prompting intense scrutiny of their early ads and messaging.
In a sign of their importance, the super PAC is bringing on one of DeSantis’ closest longtime friends as chair: Former Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt. The two roomed together while at Navy officer training, and DeSantis stumped for Laxalt in 2022 during his failed run for a Senate seat. He has already been helping the PAC unofficially for weeks now, a senior official said.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Never Back Down might determine whether or not DeSantis becomes president. In addition to its ad spending, it’s expected to play a large role in field operations that are typically handled by campaigns.
While the PAC has tangled with Trump, its top priority is building up a clear image of DeSantis before he can introduce himself to the national electorate as a candidate himself.
“His name I.D. is really high — he’s right there with Trump, who’s a former president and officially in the race,” Erin Perrine, communications director at Never Back Down, told Semafor. “But what we have found is that people don’t really know his story.”
The super PAC thinks they have plenty to work with. Its latest ad, titled “Steel,” notes that the Florida governor is “the grandson of a steel worker,” highlights his “blue collar roots,” and mentions his military service as a Navy lawyer, including a tour of duty in Iraq. It’s running in early primary states this week. “Ron DeSantis never backs down, because his backbone wasn’t forged overnight,” a man’s voice says as images of foundry workers play on screen.
“What we find is that when we tell people his story, it actually moves people away from Trump and it brings even more people to the team,” Perrine said.
They have plenty of competition to fill in his biography, however. Trump and his allies have been trying to define the Florida governor early on as an ungrateful lightweight with a repellant personality, hoping they can undermine his brand early among voters who’ve mostly only heard about him in passing headlines and news clips.
They’ve been boosted in recent days by a flood of Trump endorsements from Florida politicians, which have also raised questions about whether the introverted DeSantis has the people skills needed to build a winning coalition. A widely-discussed ad from a pro-Trump PAC got at related personality questions by mixing criticism of DeSantis’ Social Security record with an actor depicting a claim (which DeSantis says he doesn’t recall) that he once ate pudding with his fingers.
Meanwhile several campaigns have tried to undermine a key part of DeSantis’ record — his feud with Disney over its opposition to a bill restricting discussions of gender and sexuality in schools — by accusing him of interfering with business and being outplayed while doing so.
That’s where the second half of Never Back Down’s advertising and messaging campaign comes in: Playing defense on attacks and trying to get in a few of their own.
On the endorsement front, Never Back Down is hoping the addition of Laxalt — who as recently as last year said he would support Trump in 2024 — will help send a signal that allies of the former president are ready to move on. But Perrine argued discussion of endorsements was apples and oranges given that Trump has declared already.
“The endorsement game is not the game that’s happening right now, because he’s not a candidate,” Perrine told Semafor. “So what we’re doing is channeling people who want to be on board and want to encourage Ron DeSantis to run.”
At the same time, the group, which said in early April that it had raised $30 million since March 9, has shown it’s not afraid to get its hands dirty when attacked. But at a time where going after Trump remains largely taboo within the party, its ads and statements still seem to be trying out a variety of jabs on different topics rather than unloading one big haymaker.
Days after the “pudding ad,” the pro-DeSantis PAC came out with a 30-second ad accusing Trump of going after his own party instead of Democrats. In another ad, the PAC calls Trump a “gun-grabber,” highlighting a brief and mostly aborted flirtation with new gun laws in 2018.
“When Donald Trump wants to make a statement, we’re going to make sure people know the truth,” Perrine said.
These counter-attacks also seem to be ramping up. On Friday, the former president issued a lengthy press release slamming the quality of life in Florida and claiming that under DeSantis, the state “has become among the worst” to live, pay taxes, have a baby, rent a home, retire, and more.
The billion-dollar question is how far DeSantis and his allies are willing to go in attacking the former president when the real war begins and what areas they’ll pick to make the case.
Perrine brought up several potential routes. One: Questioning his competence and willingness to fight, with the pandemic response as Exhibit A.
“Our party and its movement just needs a new leader that’s willing to fight for them,” she said. “And they see that in Governor DeSantis — whereas Trump didn’t stand up to Fauci, Governor DeSantis did.”
Second, portraying him as captured by the same Washington forces he sought to undermine. Some Trump critics have noted the irony of the former president, who had few endorsements of any kind in 2016, now bragging about his powerful supporters.
“Frankly, Trump kind of became part of the swamp that he said he was going to drain,” Perrine said. “Ron DeSantis has an incredible record of standing up to the status quo and establishment politicians, so I think that people across the country view him as the future of our party. And that’s really the thesis of Never Back Down.”
Room for Disagreement
There are plenty of critics questioning if the PAC’s strategy will be effective. In a New York Times opinion piece, Michelle Goldberg argues that the group’s DeSantis ads are “whining about Trump’s aggression rather than countering it” and points to the recent string of Trump endorsements as evidence the plan is failing.
- Anti-Trump Republicans are growing nervous amid a string of positive indicators for the former president — Reuters recently reported that some donors fear DeSantis could soon be “overshadowed by Trump’s fundraising, improving polling numbers and lawmaker endorsements.”
- In an op-ed in The Hill, Douglas MacKinnon sees Trump and left-of-center media “teaming to create a ‘DeSantis is imploding’ narrative” that he believes will ultimately bolster the Florida governor’s candidacy.