Short on cash, Gov. Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign has found an unusual way to pay for his habit of flying in private planes: passing the cost to the better-funded super PAC that is increasingly intertwined with his operation.
The practice, described by three people who spoke about the arrangement on the condition of anonymity, appears to have cut the campaign’s travel bills by hundreds of thousands of dollars in September alone. It could test the limits of campaign finance laws, experts said.
“This is old news, and it’s entirely appropriate for N.B.D. to be covering the costs of their events,” said Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign, using shorthand for the super PAC, Never Back Down. “The campaign is firing on all cylinders, and as we see a considerable uptick in fund-raising, we are continuing to identify cost savings, run an efficient operation, and focus resources on Iowa and the early states.”
Asked on Friday about the flights as he visited a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Murrells Inlet, S.C., Mr. DeSantis said, “Everything is checked by lawyers,” adding, “I don’t move without lawyers signing off.”
Never Back Down pays for Mr. DeSantis’s travel only on days when the events he is attending are hosted solely by the group, the people familiar with the arrangement said. The super PAC now hosts many of his events in early primary states.
A representative for Never Back Down declined to comment on the arrangement.
Federal candidates can appear as “featured guests” of super PACs, but whether a super PAC can also pay for transportation is less clear cut. Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns, and campaign finance experts say that Mr. DeSantis’s arrangement — in which he is campaigning for president as a guest of a super PAC — could test that rule.
“I think what DeSantis is currently doing is an abuse of this law to benefit his candidacy — paid for by his super PAC and its special-interest donors,” said Saurav Ghosh, a former Federal Election Commission lawyer and the director of federal campaign finance reform for the Campaign Legal Center.
The Campaign Legal Center filed an ethics complaint in July with Florida officials against Mr. DeSantis for failing to disclose gifts of plane travel — made before he formally declared his candidacy for president — that was arranged by a nonprofit group, an arrangement described by The New York Times in May.
Aside from comfort, private air travel can be a tremendous help to candidates as they move quickly from state to state in the thick of primary season. Many of the other Republican presidential candidates have often flown commercial, including Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, who has taken jabs at Mr. DeSantis for his well-known preference for flying private.
The travel expenses for Mr. DeSantis’s campaign have previously drawn scrutiny.
In July, his campaign’s first report showed that he had spent $179,000 on chartered planes, as well as $483,000 to a limited liability company for “travel.” Never Back Down paid that same company $343,000 in June.
In August, The Washington Post reported that Never Back Down and the campaign had become joint investors in a private transportation management company that provided lower-cost airplane rental leases for Mr. DeSantis, citing people familiar with the deal. The Post reported that Mr. DeSantis had used planes from the company in July; in its October filing, the campaign lists the last payment to the company, Empyreal Jets, as $41,433 on August 10.
A shrinking campaign
Campaign finance filings show just how much Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has transformed since late July, when sagging poll numbers and astronomical spending forced him to pare back his operation and reboot his bid for the White House.
Mr. DeSantis, who has served as Florida’s governor since 2019, began his run for president in May campaigning as a front-runner, with money to burn. With a large entourage in tow, he traveled to big venues, delivering his stump speech in highly stage-managed appearances; he kept the news media at arm’s length and spent millions on consultants.
In July, records show, the campaign spent $5.5 million. Bills that month included nearly $1 million for travel, including hundreds of thousands to jet rental companies; $1.8 million to consultants specializing in areas like survey research, media and fund-raising; and $828,000 in payroll expenses.
Then came the financial report for the second quarter of 2023, which revealed an unsustainable level of spending. At the end of July, Mr. DeSantis cut more than a third of his staff, hired a new campaign manager and handed over most of his event planning to Never Back Down, which was already managing operations traditionally handled by a campaign, like field work.
By the end of September, he was running like an insurgent: leaner, more accessible and much less expensive.
The campaign spent 75 percent less in September than it did in July, the records show, even as Mr. DeSantis toured Iowa, traveled to New York and Texas for donor events, and delivered speeches in California and Washington, D.C. Travel costs plummeted to $130,000 in September from about $1 million in both July and August.
The campaign’s top expenses in September were relatively modest: $100,000 for media placement, $70,000 for postage, $70,000 for digital fund-raising consulting. Payroll costs fell to $532,000.
The downsizing was in part strategic, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign and his surrogates have said, positioning him as a nimbler, scrappier presence on the trail. They say it has been a success, allowing Mr. DeSantis to engage with voters directly and saving campaign funds.
Lingering cash problems
But Mr. DeSantis’s financial situation remains strained. Averaged over the entire quarter, the campaign spent 99 cents of every dollar it brought in, a worrisome burn rate. The campaign entered October with only $5 million in cash on hand for the primary election, and $1 million in debts, which appear to be unpaid bills.
His fund-raising from July through September declined by about 25 percent from the previous quarter.
More than 80 percent of all the money Mr. DeSantis’s campaign has raised since entering the race in May has come from people who have given more than $200, and at least two-thirds came from people who have given at least the maximum $3,300 allowed for the primary, a greater share than any other Republican candidate, the filings show.
This is a sign of enthusiasm for Mr. DeSantis among large donors, but it suggests a weakness among smaller donors. While it is impossible to say how many individual small donors he has — his campaign has an arrangement that prevents the disclosure of donors of less than $200 in official records — such donors are critical to the long-term success of a campaign, since they can be tapped for repeated contributions, and can be an indicator of broader enthusiasm for a candidate.
The campaign’s Oct. 15 filing does not provide a full picture of its financial health. Some of the campaign’s expenses may not have appeared, because campaigns sometimes defer paying bills until after the quarter is over.
And some larger expenses have been shifted over to Never Back Down, which for months has been acting as a shadow campaign operation. In July, the campaign said Mr. DeSantis would shift focus to smaller, intimate events, and would rely on invitations from outside organizations rather than hosting events itself.
Shifting the strategy
Mr. DeSantis is now running the type of campaign befitting a candidate low on cash, who is trailing the front-runner, Donald J. Trump, in national polls by more than 40 percentage points, and has lost ground to other candidates who are raising — and saving — money faster.
In Iowa this month, after a full day of campaigning, Mr. DeSantis stopped at a small diner in Fort Madison to meet a group of roughly two dozen voters, patiently taking their questions in an impromptu question-and-answer session outside.
In New Hampshire, he gabbed with clusters of voters at gas stations and convenience stores in the state’s remote North Country. It was a shoestring approach that felt worlds removed from a campaign that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in May to court donors at the Four Seasons in Miami.
Mr. DeSantis has also significantly adjusted his press strategy, becoming a constant presence in the mainstream news media and regularly taking questions in person from reporters.
His newfound accessibility has earned him reams of free media, even if it means he now must take tougher questions.
Some questions, though, can be deferred — like details about who is covering his flights. His campaign, the super PAC and other committees supporting him do not have to file financial reports again until Jan. 31, after the first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Rachel Shorey, Andrew Fischer and Alyce McFadden contributed reporting.