By Alexandra Ulmer
(Reuters) – Hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, the biggest individual donor to a group supporting Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid, told Reuters on Friday he will not donate more money unless the Florida governor attracts new major donors and adopts a more moderate approach.
The comments by Bigelow, who gave $20 million to the pro-DeSantis “Never Back Down” super PAC in March, underscore donor concerns about the Florida governor’s struggling campaign, which has been unable to make a dent in former President Donald Trump’s huge lead for the 2024 Republican nomination.
“He does need to shift to get to moderates. He’ll lose if he doesn’t … Extremism isn’t going to get you elected,” Bigelow said in an interview, adding that he had communicated these concerns to DeSantis’ campaign.
When asked which specific policies Bigelow did not support, Bigelow cited only DeSantis signing in April a bill passed by the Florida legislature banning abortions after six weeks, a move that came after Bigelow had donated the $20 million.
Bigelow said he would not donate more money for now. “Not until I see that he’s able to generate more on his own. I’m already too big a percentage,” Bigelow said. “A lot of his donors are still on the fence.”
Bigelow, the founder of Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, said he wasn’t waiting for an exact fundraising figure, but that “it’s going to be a lot.”
In a statement to Reuters, a spokesperson for the DeSantis campaign, Bryan Griffin, said they were “grateful” to supporters and donors who gave them “the capacity to compete for the long haul,” without addressing Bigelow directly.
Bigelow’s comments will likely stoke perceptions that DeSantis, once a donor darling expected to put up a real fight against Trump, is in a downward spiral as his right-wing social policies and wooden personality fail to excite voters.
DeSantis has been running to the right of Trump despite many Republican strategists saying he should instead be trying to court moderates concerned about Trump’s policies and electability.
A source familiar with the governor’s strategy told Reuters that “donors don’t set policy for the governor, and they never will.”
Never Back Down did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
BIGELOW STICKING WITH DESANTIS
Even though DeSantis has attracted big donors desperate for a Trump alternative, Bigelow stands out. After him, the second-biggest individual donor to Never Back Down is venture capitalist Douglas Leone, who gave $2 million, according to campaign filings – a tenth of what Bigelow contributed.
DeSantis’ campaign finances have come under scrutiny in recent weeks after his campaign said it had let go 38 employees, or over one-third of staff. The campaign had a high cash burn rate and most of the money raised came from donors who had contributed the maximum legal amount, suggesting more financial tensions ahead.
To be sure, DeSantis’ campaign and Never Back Down had a combined $109 million in the bank at the end of June, well above the combined $53 million of Trump’s campaign and his allied super PAC, known as MAGA Inc, according to financial disclosures to the Federal Elections Commission.
As DeSantis’ campaign struggles, however, he has been relying more on Never Back Down, which as a super PAC can raise and spend unlimited sums supporting him as long as it doesn’t coordinate spending with his campaign.
Bigelow said he remains behind DeSantis. “I think he’s the best guy for the country.”
But the hotelier was incensed by the bill banning abortions after six weeks, saying that was too early and that many women do not even know they are pregnant at that stage.
The abortion restrictions have rattled other donors. Metals magnate and Republican donor Andy Sabin, for example, soured on DeSantis and threw his support behind Senator Tim Scott in part due to the abortion issue.
Bigelow said he agreed with most of DeSantis’ policies, however, and that he was “spot on” in his war on “wokeism.” “Woke” is a term used in a derogatory way by conservatives to criticize progressive policies, often linked to issues of identity in education and the workplace.
After a glitch-filled launch on Twitter in May, DeSantis has struggled to catch fire with voters amid organizational problems, viral videos of awkward interactions with the public, and relentless attacks by Trump.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showed he had slumped to 13% of support among Republicans against 47% for Trump.
Bigelow said he had told DeSantis’ campaign manager Generra Peck that DeSantis needed to be more moderate to have a chance.
Asked how Peck reacted, Bigelow said, laughing: “There was a long period of silence where I thought maybe she had passed out.”
“But I think she took it all in,” Bigelow added, describing Peck as a “very good campaign manager.”
DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to queries about Peck and Bigelow.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, additional reporting by Jason Lange, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)