On the day his presidential campaign said it had laid off more than a third of its staff to address worries about unsustainable spending, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida began his morning by boarding a private jet to Chattanooga, Tenn.
The choice was a routine one — Mr. DeSantis and his wife, Casey, haven’t regularly flown commercial for years — but also symbolic to close observers of his struggling presidential campaign. As Mr. DeSantis promises a reset, setting out on Thursday on a bus tour in Iowa to show off a leaner, hungrier operation, several donors and allies remained skeptical about whether the governor could right the ship.
Their bleak outlook reflects a deep mistrust plaguing the highest levels of the DeSantis campaign, as well as its supporters and the well-funded super PAC, Never Back Down, bolstering his presidential ambitions.
Publicly, the parties are projecting a stoic sunniness about Mr. DeSantis, even as he has sunk dangerously close to third place in some recent polls. They have said they are moving into an “insurgent” phase in which the candidate will be everywhere — on national and local media, and especially in Iowa.
But privately, the situation is starkly different.
Major Republican donors, including the hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, have remained on the sidelines because they are disappointed in his performance and his campaign, according to two people familiar with their thinking.
DeSantis donors have specifically raised concerns about the campaign’s finances, which appear both troubling and persistently opaque. Some prominent vendors did not show up on the first Federal Election Commission report, raising questions about how much of the spending has been deferred and whether the campaign’s total reported cash on hand for the primary — $9.2 million — was even close to accurate.
The campaign’s concerning financial situation prompted an all-hands review of the budget in recent weeks. This review extended to James Uthmeier, the chief of staff in the governor’s office and a longtime trusted aide. Mr. Uthmeier recently received a personal briefing on the campaign’s finances from an official, Ethan Eilon, with the blessing of campaign manager Generra Peck, and then delivered an assessment to the governor, according to two people briefed on the conversations.
Asked about the briefing, Mr. Uthmeier responded by email to express strong confidence in Ms. Peck, who he said had “welcomed” him to help the campaign as a volunteer. He added that Mr. DeSantis “continues to receive support from tens of thousands” of donors and that he has “full confidence” in Mr. DeSantis’s “vision to beat Joe Biden and restore sanity.”
In an attempt to assuage donors’ anxieties, Mr. DeSantis’s allies have promised a campaign pivot that includes a more open press strategy, humbler travel conditions and smaller events. Advisers say the governor will be promoting his vision for a “Great American Comeback” — a phrase they hope will also apply to his spiraling campaign. Mr. DeSantis, a big-state governor with little love for glad-handing, will have to prove he is up for the challenges.
On Thursday, Mr. DeSantis began a two-day bus tour across central Iowa that is being organized almost entirely by the super PAC, Never Back Down. Announcements for the three meet-and-greet stops scheduled describe Mr. DeSantis as the “special guest.”
In talking points provided to donors on the day of the layoffs, the campaign described the operation as “leaning into the reset.”
“We will embrace being the underdog and use the media’s ongoing narrative about the campaign to fuel momentum on the ground with voters,” said the guidance.
On Tuesday, the campaign confirmed it had fired 38 campaign officials this month in an attempt to shrink its payroll. It remains unclear how many of those are leaving the DeSantis orbit. Some have discussed joining nonprofit groups with close ties to Mr. DeSantis’s political operation, including one linked to Phil Cox, who was an adviser on the governor’s 2022 campaign.
Among the known DeSantis vendors that did not show up on his first campaign filing are some companies — Ascent Media and Public Opinion Strategies — that are part of a consultancy umbrella group called GP3, in which Mr. Cox is a key financial partner. Mr. Cox, who has worked closely with some of the 2024 campaign leadership in the past and also spent a brief stint advising the super PAC, is now back informally involved with the DeSantis campaign and raising money.
But Mr. DeSantis himself has yet to adopt his campaign’s newfound frugality. On Tuesday, he flew multiple trips on private planes to fund-raisers around Tennessee. The private flights help explain part of how the campaign has burned through cash in its first six weeks. His campaign’s first report showed that he had spent $179,000 in chartered plane costs, as well as $483,000 to a limited liability company for “travel.”
Some of Mr. DeSantis’s rivals have been eager to point out their cost-saving measures. On Wednesday, Nikki Haley tweeted a photo with her flight attendant under the hashtag #WeFlyCommercial.
What’s more, Mr. DeSantis and other parts of his operation showed little sign of a message shift.
In an interview with the radio host Clay Travis that aired Wednesday, Mr. DeSantis said that he would consider picking Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine candidate running as a Democrat, to work at the F.D.A. or the C.D.C. The stunning remark prompted criticism from some prominent conservative writers, including at The National Review, where staff had once sounded bullish on a DeSantis candidacy.
Later in the day, Mr. DeSantis’s campaign aide Christina Pushaw, who is known for fighting with reporters online, attacked the popular Republican Florida Representative Byron Donalds, who is Black, for criticizing his state’s new required teachings on slavery. By night’s end, the feud over Mr. Donalds devolved to the point where another DeSantis aide, Jeremy Redfern, got into a fight with a random Twitter user and posted her photo prominently in a tweet.
At a donor retreat over the weekend — at a luxury ski resort in Park City, Utah, hired out for $87,000 — donors and allies, including Representative Chip Roy of Texas, had tough conversations with both the governor and his wife, a close adviser, about the structure and management of the campaign, according to two people who attended the retreat.
Asked whether the congressman voiced concerns to Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Roy issued a statement saying only, “It’s not the campaign that needs to change; it’s the direction of our country. Governor DeSantis and his whole team are committed to doing just that.” His spokesman did not respond to a follow-up question.
Much of the rancor stems from the strained but increasingly intertwined relationship between Mr. DeSantis’s campaign and his super PAC. Having raised $130 million, the super PAC has vastly more money than the campaign and has taken over basic campaign functions, including its voter contact operation — a highly unusual extent of involvement.
The two entities — essentially a traditional campaign and a shadow one — are prohibited from coordinating strategy in private, but the campaign has aired its differences through a leaked memo. Ms. Peck, the campaign manager who has a close relationship with the governor and his wife, recently sent a memo to donors that appeared to call into question the super PAC’s decision to save money by staying off the airwaves in New Hampshire. The super PAC has since reserved airtime in the state, with advertising set to begin next week.
Ms. Peck also has harshly criticized Never Back Down in private, according to a person with direct knowledge of her remarks.
In response to questions about the distrust across the DeSantis orbit, the campaign’s communications director, Andrew Romeo, dismissed “palace intrigue.”
“Our campaign is laser-focused on electing Ron DeSantis president, and we are nothing but grateful for groups like Never Back Down that are also working to support this mission,” he said.
Erin Perrine, a spokeswoman for Never Back Down, declined to comment.
On Tuesday night, only hours after the announcement of the layoffs, Mr. DeSantis returned to Tallahassee on a private plane.
Back at his campaign headquarters, some staff members who hadn’t been fired brought in cases of beer to rally spirits after yet another dispiriting day. One staffer sarcastically described the evening to a friend as “the survivors party.”
Jonathan Swan is a political reporter who focuses on campaigns and Congress. As a reporter for Axios, he won an Emmy Award for his 2020 interview of then-President Donald J. Trump, and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Award for “overall excellence in White House coverage” in 2022. More about Jonathan Swan
Maggie Haberman is a senior political correspondent and the author of “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.” She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on President Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. More about Maggie Haberman
Shane Goldmacher is a national political reporter and was previously the chief political correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times, he worked at Politico, where he covered national Republican politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. More about Shane Goldmacher
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