Now that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) is a presidential candidate, the proxy war with former President Donald Trump has turned erstwhile allies into political foes — and that is as true of staffers and supporters as the candidates themselves.
And it’s not slowing down anytime soon. Two months ago, former senior Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli publicly broke ranks with the ex-president to launch the super PAC Never Back Down, urging DeSantis to run for president. It was one of the first snubs the Trump 2024 campaign faced from officials who had worked for him or supported his previous campaigns.
“America’s future is Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis doesn’t just talk. He acts, but most of all, he never backs down,” Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, said in the video announcing the super PAC.
Yet Cuccinelli wasn’t the last Trump backer to abscond. Weeks after Cuccinelli announced Never Back Down, Erin Perrine, Trump’s 2020 campaign press communications director, defected and joined the political action committee as its communications director. Since then, Never Back Down has worked to build up a $200 million war chest, staffed early nominating states, and spent millions on television ad buys that will aid DeSantis’s nascent presidential campaign.
“The Never Back Down grassroots movement is catching fire because Gov. Ron DeSantis is the future of the Republican Party and will beat Joe Biden,” Perrine told the Washington Examiner. “There are many people who supported Donald Trump but now want a leader who isn’t afraid to take on the fights that others back down on. Ron DeSantis actually takes on the tough battles and wins. Never Back Down continues to grow the nationwide momentum behind Gov. DeSantis that will propel him to the White House.”
Adding insult to injury, more than 100 former Trump administration officials announced they were backing DeSantis in his run for president on Thursday. It came just one day after DeSantis joined the 2024 race giving the governor more momentum after a botched Twitter Spaces rollout. The Eight-Year Alliance, as the group is reportedly being called, declared the governor is “a proven winner,” according to Fox News.
Yet Trump is not taking the defections lightly. Susie Wiles, a former DeSantis gubernatorial aide, now serves as a senior official in Trump’s third White House bid after DeSantis relieved her from his team in 2019. Chris LaCivita, a former Cuccinelli aide and now a Trump co-campaign manager, has taken to trolling DeSantis’s wife, Casey, on Twitter. It led to DeSantis’s spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, sparring with LaCivita over DeSantis’s usage of a U.S. flag in a campaign video.
LaCivita has also gotten into another spat this week with his former boss after Cuccinelli posted on Twitter on Monday, “Go to @RonDeSantis‘s twitter feed and just scroll down … major accomplishment after major accomplishment.” LaCivita hit back that DeSantis’s “biggest accomplishment in this campaign is generating more candidates!” It was an allusion to several other GOP hopefuls considering a presidential launch or who have joined the race already, such as Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and former Vice President Mike Pence.
The back-and-forth between former allies turned rivals underscores the bitter fight that will unfurl as the 2024 battle gears up. And it gives a preview of an important campaign tactic for DeSantis if he wants to win the nomination: persuade a huge swath of Trump supporters to decamp and back the governor instead.
DeSantis himself went from soliciting Trump’s endorsement in his first gubernatorial race in 2018 to now taking subtle shots against Trump’s record of losing in 2020. It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Trump repeatedly attacked DeSantis for the flip-flopping. During DeSantis’s campaign launch this week, the Trump campaign sent out an email to reporters excoriating DeSantis. “Before stumbling into a presidential race against President Trump, Swamp Creature DeSantis was a longtime supporter and advocate for President Trump,” the former president’s team complained.
Without convincing former Trump allies to side with him, DeSantis’s campaign will likely be unable to clinch enough delegates to become the next GOP presidential nominee. Officials with the Trump campaign and DeSantis campaign did not respond to the Washington Examiner’s requests for comments.