Ducks in a Roe. It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Ron DeSantis “Never Back Down” super PAC. The group’s staggering spending has so far delivered lackluster returns, which along with chronic internal disputes over management and strategy has sparked turmoil, paranoia, and fingerpointing from the campaign. The group has now lost two top officials—CEO Chris Jankowski, and its chair, Adam Laxalt, a former DeSantis college roommate who resigned on Nov. 26 to “focus on my family and law practice,” The New York Times reported last week. Jankowski—who left before Laxalt, harboring gripes that went “well beyond” strategy, the Times reported—was replaced with Kristin Davison as the new CEO. Davison was fired last Friday.
However, the group’s mastermind, veteran GOP strategist Jeff Roe, is still in the thick of things. When I reviewed Never Back Down’s spending data, I found that, while the super PAC has been hampered with infighting and drama—with Roe often playing a central role—he’s reaped an incredible windfall. Of the super PAC’s known $61.4 million in expenses to date, about two of every three dollars has gone to Roe’s companies.
Federal Election Commission data shows that three of Roe’s companies—consulting firm Axiom Strategies and subsidiaries AxMedia and Vanguard Field Consulting—have received a combined $41.1 million from Never Back Down since April. Another company under the Axiom umbrella, Cannon Research Group, got $50,000 for “survey research” in June.
But that total likely still doesn’t reflect the true amount Roe’s companies have received. NBD was only required to file one regular campaign finance report this year, covering April through June 30. Of the roughly $26.5 million in operational costs in that time period, about $10.5 million went to Roe’s companies. While we don’t know anything about the super PAC’s operating expenses since then, the pattern indicates Roe’s groups have likely taken in several million more.
But we can still see that millions of dollars have continued to flow Roe’s way. Super PACs are also required to file a running series of reports disclosing all “independent expenditures”—payments for any activities intended to directly influence an election, such as ad buys, media production, and outreach via direct mail and text message. Those filings show that, as of Dec. 4, Never Back Down has paid Roe’s companies an additional $29.5 million in independent expenditures. The other recipients of the super PAC’s I.E. payments have only received around $5.5 million combined since April, according to my analysis of FEC data.
For months, NBD was the only major super PAC supporting DeSantis. The purportedly independent group was so closely tied to the governor’s campaign that it drew complaints about potential campaign finance violations. Over the summer, the deep-pocketed super PAC bailed out the campaign, shouldering additional operations in order to stave off financial collapse.
But the waters have only gotten more rough, as the super PAC itself began to face dire financial straits. During budget discussions at a November board meeting, Roe reportedly had an intense confrontation with Never Back Down board member Scott Wagner, NBC News reported, vexing DeSantis campaign officials. The fight led a small group of DeSantis allies to splinter off and launch a second super PAC, called “Fight Right Inc,” with one of those allies having close ties to DeSantis’ new campaign manager, James Uhtmeier.
“This is James taking over the money,” one GOP source told NBC.
Maxed out. The morning of the House vote to expel former Rep. George Santos (R-NY), GOP colleague and Santos campaign donor Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) released a bombshell claim that Santos had stolen money from him and his mother.
In a letter to House Republicans, Miller wrote that Santos “charged my personal credit card—and the personal card of my Mother—for contribution amounts that exceeded FEC limits.”
“Neither my Mother nor I approved these charges or were aware of them,” Miller wrote, noting that he’d “seen a list of roughly 400 people” who allegedly had the same experience, including other members.
Miller’s claims appear to align with Santos’ FEC filings.
Both Max Miller and his mother, Barbara Miller, contributed to Santos in early 2022, FEC data shows. They both reportedly gave $5,800, the maximum allowable amount. But then, in late September, days before the quarterly deadline, the campaign reported more donations from the Millers—$2,900 from each of them on Sept. 28, even though they were both prohibited by law from making another contribution. Then the next day, Santos’ joint fundraising committee, “Devolder Santos Victory Committee,” also reported another $5,000 donation from Barbara Miller, which it transferred that same day to his leadership PAC.
You can view the donation history here.
If Miller was accurate when he said he and his mom had not made those excess donations, it’s unclear how the transactions went down. One possibility is that the Millers entrusted Santos with their credit card information in February and March, and Santos simply held onto it—as the Justice Department claims he had previously done with another donor. Or, because all the donations came through the WinRed online platform, Santos—who allegedly ran a credit card skimming operation in 2017—may have either created WinRed accounts using their information or found a way to access it in September.
In any event, Santos was expelled, despite last-minute folds from GOP leadership, including Speaker Mike Johnson, Majority Leader Steve Scalise, and conference chair Elise Stefanik. It’s possible that some members who found themselves on the fence may have locked in their votes after Miller’s letter.
Senioritis. In addition to Santos, House Republicans are losing two more votes, with the announced departures of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Bill Johnson, an Ohio conservative who is leaving for a cush gig as president of Youngstown State University.
The YSU board of trustees appointed Johnson the school’s next president in November. Three of those trustees have been major Johnson donors, accounting for a combined $86,000 between them since 2009, the Ohio Capital Journal reported last week.
Johnson’s campaign reported $1.3 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30, and it’s unclear whether he’ll pass any of that money along to his future employer. (Over the last three years, the Johnson campaign has paid $6,500 to YSU’s booster organization, the Penguin Club, for event tickets—$2,000 of it this July.)
Campaign contributions to university programs are generally legal—and not at all uncommon, as a recent Raw Story investigation showed. But the money can’t be used to pay the president’s salary directly. Johnson, who recently expressed concerns about “indoctrination” on college campuses—while claiming he did not know whether those concerns actually applied to the school he’s about to lead—is going to pull $410,000 a year as YSU president. His campaign could cover the first three years.
MAGA saga. The apparently fraudulent homepage that had been selling merchandise in the name of Trump’s legal defense fund has had yet another glow-up. The site—patriotlegaldefensefund.com (which I have archived as it looks today, Dec. 7)—no longer mentions Trump’s legal defense at all, and it has stopped selling merch.
The changes were made sometime after Oct. 31, when the page looked as it did after I reported that the real Patriot Legal Defense Fund had condemned the site as “fake,” likely the work of someone trying to scam a quick buck from Trump supporters. Previously, the website, which was created the same day that news outlets first publicized the legal fund, had waffled between being virulently anti-Trump and virulently pro-Trump, eventually settling on a pro-Trump message alongside a spate of mugshot-themed merch.
But the most recent overhaul has replaced the site’s long-winded pleas to “Help DEFEND Donald Trump!!!!” with a simple, short burst of copy that hits the campaign’s top talking points, touting Trump’s “vision for our nation,” a “tough stance on immigration,” and positions on trade and “strong borders.”
The pictures have also changed, and the merch has vanished. Now, the site only links out to one place, with “Support Donald Trump!!” connecting straight to the Trump campaign’s homepage—where you can make a donation.