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Three officials have left a pro-DeSantis super PAC in the group’s latest shake-up, AP sources say

Dec 2, 2023, 8:04 PM

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the final event of a ...

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the final event of a 99-county tour of Iowa, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Newton. (Lily Smith/The Des Moines Register via AP)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Lily Smith/The Des Moines Register via AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Three senior members of a super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis left the group on Saturday, the latest sign of instability within the 2024 hopeful’s political operation just six weeks before the Iowa Republican caucuses.

Kristin Davison parted ways with Never Back Down just after she took over leading the group following the departure of CEO Chris Jankowski less than two weeks ago. Also leaving Saturday were communications director Erin Perrine and director of operations Matt Palmisano, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Never Back Down’s internal operations. Davison’s departure was first reported by Politico.

Longtime DeSantis ally Scott Wagner, who had been a member of the group’s board, was named interim CEO and board chairman.

Never Back Down has carried the bulk of DeSantis’ presidential organizing duties and advertising loads since he announced his candidacy in May. The shake-up of its leadership comes as DeSantis is under growing pressure to cut into former President Donald Trump’s huge leads in Iowa and nationally. And more voters and donors are considering backing the campaign of former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

DeSantis’ campaign has relied heavily on Never Back Down for basic campaign functions, though the two sides cannot directly coordinate under federal campaign finance rules. Of the 99 counties DeSantis visited in Iowa, he appeared in 92 of them at Never Back Down events, according to the group’s schedule.

Jankowski, who was among those who helped initially conceive of the super PAC’s outsized role, quit on Nov. 22. Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who had been board chairman, left the group on Friday.

Among some of those close to the situation, the rash of departures is seen as an aggressive step by DeSantis’ loyalists to reassert control over Never Back Down.

The super PAC was seeded with more than $80 million from DeSantis’ political accounts this spring, but, once he became a formal candidate, DeSantis and his campaign were legally prohibited from having any direct control over the group or the money.

Instead, the group has been run by Jeff Roe, a powerhouse Republican political consultant with little pre-existing relationship to DeSantis before this year, but with close ties to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, among a large group of major Republican clients.

Never Back Down’s staff was — and still is — packed with employees directly from Roe’s firm, Axiom Strategies. They included Perrine, Matt Wolking and Jessica Syzmanski, who were apparently still with the group, as were other senior staff as of Saturday.

It was unclear late Saturday if Roe remained part of Never Back Down. Roe did not return several messages seeking comment on his status or the departures of others from the group.

Another top player at Axiom, David Polyansky, moved from the super PAC to deputy manager of DeSantis’ campaign in August, though his new role — allowed under federal law — fit with DeSantis’ new emphasis on Iowa, where Polyansky had worked in presidential and statewide campaigns.

Never Back Down has more staff working in Iowa, more than two dozen, than any campaign or super PAC and have been organizing ahead of the precinct-level caucuses since June. Much of that work goes on unabated despite the staff departures at the top.

For those who know DeSantis well, the increasing tension between the Florida governor’s loyalists and Roe’s team is not surprising.

DeSantis has long struggled to maintain close relationships with political consultants. Having cycled through several in recent years while, his wife, Casey, is widely viewed as his closest adviser.

“Scott Wagner will now serve as chairman of the board and interim CEO of Never Back Down,” the group said in an emailed statement. “Never Back Down has the most organized, advanced caucus operation of anyone in the 2024 primary field, and we look forward to continuing that great work to help elect Gov. DeSantis the next president of the United States.”

Trump, posting on his social media platform, celebrated the reported departures.

“The Ron DeSanctimonious campaign people are dropping like flies,” he wrote.

___

Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Michelle L. Price in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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Three officials have left a pro-DeSantis super PAC in the group’s latest shake-up, AP sources say