DeSantis Donor Fears & Haley’s MAGA Turn

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.aFlordia governor Ron DeSantis, as a matter of rhetoric, has made his presumptive candidacy about the general feeling that the left’s social-justice warriors have gone too far.
Flordia governor Ron DeSantis, as a matter of rhetoric, has made his presumptive candidacy about the general feeling that the left’s social-justice warriors have gone too far. Photo: James Gilbert/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
February 22, 2023

For years, I have been reporting in real time as Republicans in the post-Trump era crafted a new electoral playbook that marries MAGA culture war hysterics with buttoned-down, Chamber of Commerce conservatism. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, of course—recall how Ronald Reagan simultaneously courted evangelical Christians with his “Moral Majority” and tantalized the business crowd by dangling the miracle of supply-side economics and the Laffer curve, etcetera.

But in other ways, it really does feel like the political landscape has shifted beneath our feet. Corporate America is more plugged in than ever to social issues, as my Puck partner Bill Cohan noted today in his column about the proliferation of E.S.G. practices on Wall Street. That’s created an opening for savvy Republicans, like Ron DeSantis, who went toe-to-toe with Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek last year over Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Sure, DeSantis quietly backed down from his threat to strip Disney World of its special tax status. (Even Pence said he’d gone too far.) But DeSantis has clearly been successful in leveraging the woke wars to position himself as both anti-corporate and yet pro-business. That’s a nice trick. 

I discussed this phenomenon, and its fundraising implications, among other topics, with Teddy Schleifer, Puck’s expert on campaign finance. Herewith…

Tina: Teddy, as someone who’s been following the early DeSantis money primary in Silicon Valley, how do you see donors responding to his use of state power to fight culture war issues? Do they largely agree with his populist posturing, or do they simply view it as the political cost of getting what they really want—lower taxes and fewer regulations? Will they draw the line at more draconian abortion restrictions, say, or legal restrictions on L.G.B.T. rights?

Teddy: On some level DeSantis remains a theoretical candidate to these donors, so you’re hitting on something very real. This is not Jeb Bush, but instead a deeply conservative candidate who I’m sure will depart from the Chamber of Commerce orthodoxy and upset the center-right donors who will, nevertheless, lavishly fund his campaign. Why? Well, donors know that a Jeb Bush type is not winning a G.O.P. primary. Victory in 2024 requires at least a MAGA-inflected voice for even more conventional donor-class candidates, and DeSantis is the best, maybe only, vehicle they have to beat Trump. It’s just the hand they’ve been dealt.

I agree that one of DeSantis’s tricks with the center-right donor community has been sort of hand-waving and conflating various culture war issues into a general battle plan against “wokeism.” I bet plenty of DeSantis’s major supporters on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley actually disagree with him on abortion or gay-rights issues. But DeSantis, as a matter of rhetoric, has skillfully made his presumptive candidacy about the general feeling that the left’s social-justice warriors have gone too far—something that many in high finance privately do agree with, as long as it remains a generic notion and isn’t really tied to policy specifics. Take Ken Griffin, a moderate Republican and a DeSantis supporter, who is slamming “woke ideology” in schools.

So that’s the donor point of view. But Tina, what’s your best guess for how activist diehards split? If there were an Ames Straw Poll held today, how do you think the vote would go down across candidates? Exact percentages, please!

Tina: If you’re asking for numbers, the polls from last week are sort of all over the place—but there were a few interesting tells about the base’s inclinations. A Quinnipiac poll of “very conservative Republicans” found that Trump continues to beat the daylights out of DeSantis, 53-36. In a Harvard-CAPS/Harris poll, DeSantis actually dropped five points vs. Trump, commensurate with a 5-point surge for Nikki Haley (46-23-10), suggesting that she’ll peel off more votes from DeSantis than from Trump. That’s not particularly surprising, but it does highlight the challenge for DeSantis as more moderates enter the field. There’s a theory in certain Republican circles that DeSantis can only beat Trump if he’s the sole alternative candidate. Will his new culture war ploys, like pushing to ban diversity training at state colleges or browbeating the College Board into purging Black Lives Matter and slavery reparations from its curricula, turn off moderates? Maybe.

But if you look at the rules of MAGA physics, there’s no question that the Trump brand still has a powerful grip on the base. That same Quinnipiac poll also found that 26 percent of voters still don’t know enough about DeSantis to form a decision about whether they like or dislike him. Trump may be polarizing, but he’s certainly not an unknown quantity—only 3 percent of respondents weren’t sure how they felt about him. That’s a blessing and a curse.

We’ll see how those numbers change over time, as DeSantis inevitably raises his national profile. As I’ve previously reported, DeSantis has benefited from an aggressive and growing network of MAGA influencers across social media platforms that are pushing his message. He’ll also be elevated in the public consciousness, for better or for worse, by Trump’s attacks on his character, which have made clear that the former president views him as his top rival. Still, insiders who have followed DeSantis’s career will note that he’s not particularly adept under fire in formats like debates. He notably declined to punch back earlier this month when Trump suggested that he was a pedophile. (The allegation was baseless.) It’ll be interesting to see what happens when DeSantis is actually forced to engage. 

Teddy: What’s your early read on how the Haley campaign jibes with the base? She is definitely being well received by the mainstream media, which I think was pretty desperate for anyone to get this campaign cycle going. 

Tina: In the current, MAGAfied Republican base, there are a few inviolable rules for challenging Trump, but the most important are to be consistent in how you treat Trump, and to have a consistent record on today’s populist agenda. DeSantis has ticked both boxes: He’s been persistent in his courtship of Trump’s base and his deliberate avoidance of direct conflict with Trump, himself. Again, we’ll see how long that lasts. But DeSantis also has presented a clear, consistent point of view in his politics, from his early days on the Tea Party Express through his stint as a backbencher in the Freedom Caucus to his current project to Make America Florida.

Haley, on the other hand, has not only flip-flopped on Trump—criticizing him, then praising him; saying she wouldn’t run if he was in the race, then running as a change candidate—but also has a checkered record on various MAGA litmus tests. Her response to the murder of George Floyd, for instance, was “In order to heal, it needs to be personal and painful for everyone”—an utterly human sentiment, but not exactly what the anti-woke contingent wants to hear. As a source once put it to me, Haley’s reputation is that she “understands the world through the lens of The New York Times.” Her late-career MAGA conversion reeks of insincerity.

I assume Haley will be more popular with the donor class. As Peter Hamby noted the other day, Haley has had a sort of blessed career, leveraging her stardom as the first female governor of a low-tax, right-to-work state into lucrative relationships with all sorts of wealthy fundraisers and bundlers, C.E.O.s and soft-money donors, alike. But which donors, in particular, do you anticipate will throw money at someone like Haley or Tim Scott, and what lane might they see for them?

Teddy: I honestly don’t think Haley will be a huge hit with Silicon Valley donors outside of a few people in the South Asian community. I was paging through her invites for her most recent fundraising trips out here a few years ago and she didn’t have any of the heavies.

Now, why would someone get on the Haley train eventually? Well, donors at this point know where they stand on the Trump question. It’s impossible to be undecided. But which flavor of anti-Trump tickles their fancy hasn’t been determined yet, and that’s why I think you’ll see donors wait to join national finance commitees, cut big super-PAC checks, etcetera, until late in the year.

There are a few donors who have stuck their neck out early, entranced by intangible personal factors rather than any concrete political math. Their opinion isn’t grounded in a theory of the case, per se. Take Larry Ellison, who is absolutely smitten with Tim Scott. Ellison can read a poll, just like we can, that says Scott has no shot at all, but if there’s a belief that Scott is the man for the moment, who is to stop Ellison from spending $50 million on his guy? Donors care about electability, but it’s not as important at this early stage.

Now, this could all backfire if major anti-Trump G.O.P. donors split their checks across too many candidates, dividing the field and handing Trump the nomination. That’s akin to what happened in 2016, when the party establishment failed to effectively consolidate against Trump until it was too late. Already, I’m hearing concerns from Republican financiers about what happens if DeSantis can’t stamp out support for these third-tier non-Trump candidates. Simply put, DeSantis can’t afford to have a GingrichAdelson situation wherein someone like Tim Scott stays in the race well past his expiration date just because Ellison is smitten.

Tina: It’s a bad situation for DeSantis. Of course, he also has to worry about his own announcement timing: The longer he waits to step into the ring, the more leeway he gives other Trump alternatives to establish themselves and begin accumulating their war chests. 

Teddy: Speaking of fundraising, I’ve been following the George Santos saga and it’s hard not to laugh at some of the low-stakes mini-dramas that are unfolding day to day. On Tuesday, Santos named yet another campaign treasurer—and surprise, surprise, he’s a total rando who left his telephone number blank and listed some fake address. The F.E.C.’s efforts to police him are secondary to the Justice Department’s own investigation, but all of this has me thinking about the endgame: Is Santos really going to just ride this out, careening from mini-scandal to mini-scandal, campaign treasurer to campaign treasurer, all the way until November 2024? You’ve written about this more than I have. What’s your view?

Tina: Well, Santos says he’s not going anywhere, but he’s also said he was never a drag queen. But let’s look at two examples of people in MAGA world who have successfully stayed in office even while facing legal trouble: Donald Trump and Matt Gaetz, who has an alumnus of his office, Vish Burra, currently advising Santos. Both Trump and Gaetz faced federal investigations into their behavior—Trump for purported collusion with Russian agents during the 2016 election, Gaetz for potential involvement with underage prostitutes—and they both survived by repeatedly affirming their innocence and crying prosecution by the Deep State. However, neither were charged with anything. The public paper trail left behind by Santos is much longer than, say, Gaetz’s singular Venmo receipt. If there is a serious charge leveled against Santos, and the feds can back it up with reams of evidence, Santos immediately becomes a liability for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who desperately needs his vote. 

As for his attempts to forge relationships with right wing media, it doesn’t help that he’s a bit of a MAGA-come-lately. I imagine they view him more as a curiosity than a genuine ally. His latest interview with Piers Morgan was a bit of a twist on the MAGA playbook. Santos admitted that he was a liar and expressed contrition for repeatedly lying in the past—two big no-nos in that world. But does that comport with being a MAGA-fighting Twitter personality? We’ll see!

Teddy: Our colleague Tara Palmeri had a fun item the other month about how Republican elected officials are plain desperate to get retweets from Elon Musk, who’s sort of replaced Trump as the conservative social media influencer nonpareil. I wonder if you see that in your own reporting and feeds? What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen Republicans do to curry favor with the new G.O.P. meme-god?

Tina: Naturally, Republican politicians are behind the curve again: the influencer class is actually sort of pissed at Elon’s handling of New Twitter. Their main gripe with Old Twitter was that its owners algorithmically suppressed their social media content from spreading—shadowbanning, preventing their tweets from being read by people outside their social circles, and so forth. But their main concern now is that Elon’s tinkering with the algorithm hasn’t increased their follower counts. In some cases, he’s made it worse. There was a funny moment earlier this month where prominent conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Libs of TikTok locked their accounts to see if that increased their views, which prompted Elon to do the same. It’s been a mess.

Meanwhile, I’ve been closely following your reporting on the arrest of Sam Bankman-Fried and the legal fallout at FTX. One thing that has fascinated me, in particular, is this controversy over whether he was primarily a mega-donor to Democratic causes or if it’s true, as S.B.F. claims, that he was also secretly funding some number of Republican candidates. I guess there’s no such thing as having too much influence in Washington, if your goal is to change the world. But I’m curious how liberals like S.B.F. and his associates, who were mostly focused on progressives issues like climate change and voting rights and pandemic preparedness, rationalized supporting conservative candidates and organizations, too?

Teddy: The effective-altruist spin on conservatism has always fascinated me. Effective altruists like to talk about spending their money on problems that are “I.T.N.,” or important, tractable, and neglected. And some E.A.s think that Republicanism has been awfully neglected, and make a nonpartisan argument that people can do more good by improving the Republican Party than they can by working within the Democratic Party, because there are fewer E.A.s in the Republican Party. To them, it’s simple math.

But there is also a distinctly post-partisan element to many effective altruist beliefs. It helps that E.A.s, in general, don’t prioritize social issues like race or gender. They do care about the safety of artificial intelligence, nuclear nonproliferation, animal welfare, and foreign aid. Are those Republican issues? 

It’s instructive to look at how S.B.F. handled the right. Sam and his brother, Gabe, hired Republicans and really invested time and money into building relationships with the right for precisely this reason. On some level, they believed that they could have more impact pound-for-pound by moving a recalcitrant G.O.P. in their direction than they could by partnering with a supportive Democratic Party. Sam is not a bleeding-heart liberal, either, if you couldn’t tell by his non-ironic, occasional use of the word “woke.”

The fact that Sam’s giving was bipartisan has neutralized some of the Republican schadenfreude over FTX’s collapse. Sure, Sam was the C.E.O. and gave primarily to Democrats, but other FTX executives, like Ryan Salame, were showering money on conservative politicians, too. The story of FTX in Washington isn’t a partisan one. It’s a story of influence peddling, and the political power of money.