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DeSantis gets 7-figure checks from top GOP donors as he soft launches presidential campaign

<i>Spencer Platt/Getty Images</i><br/>Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

By Steve Contorno, CNN

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis intensifies his preparation for a White House bid, several of the wealthiest and most prolific Republican donors are already giving him a major financial boost.

Trader and investor Jeffrey Yass donated $2.5 million to DeSantis’ state political committee on February 7, according to online records maintained by the organization, Friends of Ron DeSantis. And Jude and Christopher Reyes, the billionaire brothers behind one of the country’s largest beer and food distributors, each gave DeSantis’ committee $1 million last week as well.

The seven-figure checks arrived ahead of what has amounted to a late-February soft launch of DeSantis’ highly anticipated run for president. On Monday, DeSantis held campaign-style rallies with police officers in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, where he regaled the crowds with stories of the culture wars. Ahead of a potential GOP primary clash with Donald Trump, DeSantis will next host a three-day retreat for donors this weekend in Trump’s neighborhood. And his memoir, “The Courage to Be Free,” drops next Tuesday, with plans for a national book tour and events scheduled with GOP activists in Texas, California and Alabama.

This cascade of activity is the clearest sign yet that DeSantis intends to jump into the Republican primary, though he’s in no rush to do so. Even as Trump channels his energy at derailing DeSantis, the Florida governor is sticking to plans to wait on a formal announcement until May or June, after state lawmakers hold their annual legislative session, according to sources close to the governor. DeSantis seemed to confirm the timeline during a Monday appearance on Fox & Friends.

“We’re going to sell some books. We’re going to spread the message of Florida. And then on March 8, I have our legislative session that’s kicking off,” DeSantis said. “As we get beyond that, then we decide from there.”

“Wouldn’t you guys like to have that announcement on ‘Fox & Friends’?” he later teased.

The continued financial support from wealthy donors — achieved without actually declaring himself a candidate — explains, in part, why DeSantis is content to remain on the sidelines. In addition to the $4.5 million from Yass and the Reyes brothers, DeSantis’ political committee has more than $71 million left over from last year’s reelection effort, when he shattered fundraising records en route to a lopsided 19-point victory in the Sunshine State. CNN reached out to Yass and the Reyes brothers through their respective businesses to inquire about their donations to DeSantis’ political committee, but they did not respond.

DeSantis’ cash on hand would put him on nearly equal footing with Trump, who had more than $81 million stockpiled across five committees when campaign finance figures were last reported in January, and far ahead of any other competitor trying to usurp the former president for the party’s 2024 GOP nomination. It remains to be seen how DeSantis’ political operation will move his reserve cash, which is parked in a state political committee, into a federal super PAC that could support his presidential campaign without violating campaign finance laws, however; CNN previously reported that is ultimately the goal. A source close to DeSantis’ political team confirmed a recent report from Puck that Phil Cox, a veteran GOP operative and a top adviser to DeSantis’ 2020 campaign, is in the process of recruiting a team to helm that effort. Cox previously ran the super PAC tied to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign.

A spokesman for DeSantis’ political operation declined to comment on plans for the money left over from the 2022 election. Friends of Ron DeSantis received about $670,000 in contributions in December and January, according to state records.

The early support from the upper echelon of GOP mega donors — many of whom have been shopping for an alternative to Trump — could also make it difficult for other would-be contenders to launch a viable bid for the nomination.

Yass, the world’s 42nd richest person with an estimated wealth of $30 billion according to Forbes, made his presence felt during the midterms, donating more than $55 million to Republican causes in federal campaigns. That doesn’t include the millions Yass spent in his home state of Pennsylvania ahead of the primary for governor there last year, trying to boost Bill McSwain over the far-right election denier Doug Mastriano. Mastriano ultimately won the GOP nomination with Trump’s support but lost the general election to Democrat Josh Shapiro.

The only donors to spend more money than Yass during the last cycle — billionaire hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin and Wisconsin shipping magnates Elizabeth and Richard Uihlein — have also supported DeSantis in the past. The Uihleins donated just under $2 million to the Republican’s two gubernatorial campaigns. Griffin, who has vocally called for the GOP to move on from Trump, has twice cut DeSantis’ committee checks for $5 million and has already expressed interest in supporting him in the presidential primary.

En route to raising $213 million for his reelection, the most ever by a non-self-funded gubernatorial candidate, DeSantis collected nearly 300 donations of six figures or higher.

DeSantis-Trump donor duel in Palm Beach

Many of his top donors will be in Palm Beach, Florida, this weekend, where DeSantis has assembled about 150 donors for an exclusive retreat on the same barrier island that Trump calls home.

The summit will include policy and strategy sessions during the day and dinner, cocktails and cigars in the evening. It’s an opportunity for the GOP money class to see another side of DeSantis, who has earned a reputation for shunning donors at receptions and ducking out of events with guests still waiting for a photo.

“That’s the undertone of the whole thing,” said a Republican consultant familiar with the retreat’s planning. “He’s showing his people that he appreciates them and they’re in the tent and their voices are meaningful and impactful. I think it’s about strengthening those relationships and showing they care.”

DeSantis’ public maneuvering has increasingly drawn the ire of Trump, whose super PAC, MAGA, Inc, is hosting its first major fundraiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach on Thursday. In his latest criticism of his one-time ally, Trump said Florida “was doing great long before” DeSantis became governor, while praising the leadership of former governors Rick Scott and Charlie Crist. Beyond his public attacks, Trump has privately expressed annoyance to allies about DeSantis’ 2024 ambitions as recently as this weekend, a source told CNN.

Trump’s remarks come on the heels of the warm reception DeSantis received from law enforcement during his three-stop tour through Democratic turf on Monday. DeSantis was ostensibly on the road to make a sales pitch for police to move to Florida and tout his tough-on-crime policies, but it was clear that those in the crowds were already seizing up the Florida governor as a possible alternative to Trump.

At DeSantis’ stop in Elmhurst, Illinois, Joe McGraw, an Illinois circuit court judge, said DeSantis was “electric” and that it was “pretty much unanimous” among attendees that DeSantis should seek the GOP presidential nomination.

Bob Kopp, a 71-year-old pastor and police chaplain, said he liked Trump’s record, voted for him twice and would vote for him again — but also called the former president “an insufferable narcissist.”

“It was so nice to hear someone reflect American values in a hopeful, positive — it wasn’t really demeaning of anybody,” he said of DeSantis. “He spoke of positive principles and values, and didn’t get into personalities and demeaning.”

DeSantis’ arrival in New York City put the governor in the heart of Trump’s turf in his former home — Staten Island, the only of the five New York boroughs that Trump won in 2020. DeSantis spoke to police officers for 20 minutes and stopped for bagels, where he posed for photos and reportedly shrugged off questions about his political ambitions.

“People can see with their own eyes that things are going well in Florida, so I’m not surprised that his message is resonating. If and when he decides to get in he’ll have to convince people that his vision is best for America,” said New York City councilman Joe Borelli, who met with DeSantis during the visit. “I think it’s going to be a tough choice for Republicans. We’re glad he came, and maybe dipped his foot in the water here, but we certainly welcome a visit from the former president and anyone else.”

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CNN’s Kristen Holmes and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.

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