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DeSantis PAC Gears up for 2024

A Ron DeSantis-aligned super PAC is preparing for the election season by training thousands of professional door-knockers for the campaign. These recruits will be deployed in 19 battleground states and are being given the resources and training necessary to win hearts and minds and, most importantly, get people out to vote. This is costly, but the juice could be well worth the squeeze; the PAC is spending millions gearing up and staffing up in preparation for a hotly contested primary election.

WASHINGTON POST: DeSantis allies set up a school to train a $100 million door-knocking army

By Michael Scherer; June 16, 2023

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — This door is filled with opportunity and danger for supporters of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It stands on a pine-board frame, beneath fluorescent lights in an office park conference room — a training tool for hundreds of students who have flown in from across the country this summer as part of the $100 million DeSantis donor bet on the art of knocking.

Always be polite, the trainees are told by Joe Williams, who runs the sessions for Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting the governor. Body language matters. Passion counts. Never accept water or go inside. Mention DeSantis’s wife, Casey, her cancer diagnosis and his military service.

If a journalist answers or the voter targets say they are steadfast supporters of former president Donald Trump, quickly exit the conversation. Push back on the mailers that say DeSantis wants to cut Social Security. Be ready with the details of Florida’s abortion law. Close with a caucus commitment card, when possible.

“Conversations can be great. Yard signs are awesome but don’t vote,” said Williams, a lively teacher who rewarded students with beer koozies and hats when they did well. “Close the sale.”

Never before has a presidential effort invested in doorsin the way the DeSantis machineis doing. By Labor Day, Never Back Down aims to have about 2,600 trained canvassers in the 18 early nominating states, many with hotel rooms and rental cars, iPads and evolving scripts, not to mention a paycheck from working in a positionthat is now advertised on job boards as between $20 to $22 an hour. The work will continue through March, with staff redeployed as the election season proceeds.

It is designed to allow the PAC to run a paid-field operation bigger than ever before tried in a presidential primary, on the scale of four simultaneous congressional races in Iowa, two in New Hampshire and seven in South Carolina. DeSantis has effectively abandoned the old model of running field operations with volunteers from a cash-strapped campaign, outsourcing the effort to a super PAC in ways that test the boundaries of campaign finance law.

Every canvasser has to first go through this eight-day class at the office park, at a school organizers have nicknamed “Fort Benning,” an homage to the U.S. Army base in Georgia that recently underwent a name change because Henry L. Benning was a Confederate brigadier general, champion of secession and defender of slavery. (DeSantis has called such military name changes “political correctness run amok.”)

“We want our army out in the field to be able to provide a concierge type of service,” the group’s chief operating officer Kristin Davison said. “There are people that don’t make it through the school. We are not going to graduate someone who is not up to the standards of what we want at the doors.”

The culling speaks to the complications of mounting such a large paid-canvassing effort this early, which is distinct from the massive volunteer armies assembled by Democrats in past cycles. So-called “paid doors” can be effective, say Republican strategists, boosting voter share by single digits. But the process can also be rife with fraud and high turnover, as workers, who operate independently with geotracking on their phones, slack off or lose interest. Not all of the recruits come to the job with a passion for politics or DeSantis, a factor that the training is intended to address.

Under campaign finance laws, Never Back Down can accept donations of any value but is prohibited from coordinating strategy directly with the DeSantis campaign. But a Never Back Down official said the law will allow the two operations to swap data later of equal value after the information is collected.

A DeSantis campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the strategy, said the governor was focused on securing endorsements from state legislators, fostering relationships with key stakeholders and building out a constant slate of events.

For the moment, Never Back Down is focused on the dual mission of introducing the candidate they support and separating a sizable portion of the Republican Party’s right flank from Trump. Training materials cast the Florida governor as a superior fighter of liberal elites, particularly on social issues championed by what the group calls “woke corporations, the tainted media and radical politicians.”

The contrast, at times, can be stark. “Trump is an unfocused, undisciplined candidate who will lose to Joe Biden, again,” reads one briefing slide.

Students are coached to argue that DeSantis has the “the same fire” as Trump but a better track record of accomplishment. They are encouraged to point out that Trump never finished the border wall, did not reduce the national deficit and “did not drain the swamp or get control of the bureaucracy.” The training also includes a discussion of Trump’s advanced age — 33 years older than DeSantis, who is 44.

“Political rallies are meaningless if conservatives don’t get the job done,” reads one briefing slide. “DeSantis gets the job done. Trump didn’t.”

Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, argues that the broaderDeSantis effort is doomed to fail, in part because Republican voters continue to recoil at direct attacks on the former president. The Trump campaign has been standing up a smaller, more traditional, volunteer-driven door-knocking operation, he said.

“Everybody and their mother knows you can’t beat Donald Trump by trying to be him,” LaCivita said. “If the only way to beat Trump is to go to the right of Trump, that means they have to attack Trump. DeSantis hasn’t shown the male fortitude to attack Trump.”

The practical elements are also handled in class, like the difference between “No Soliciting” signs, which can be ignored because the canvassers do not consider themselves solicitors, and “No Trespassing” or “No Handbills” signs, which carry more weight. Canvassers agree to nondisclosure agreements tailored to prevent internal information from being given to “Democrats or the media.” Social media posting about the job is prohibited, according to training documents.

Students are coached to de-escalate conflicts with angry residents, be wary of dogs and avoid interaction with door-knockers from rival campaigns. They are told to make notes of campaign signs, beware of smart doorbells that will record their efforts and ask open-ended questions to get feedback from voters about their thoughts on DeSantis.

Data gathered at the door can be used like a focus group to tailor and target persuasion messaging later in the season. Never Back Down says it has 519 volunteers so far, and that 173 of them have been recruited through door knocking.

The 54 trainees who sat through class on Thursday, hoping to join the 267 who have already graduated, were far more diverse in age, race and ethnicity than most Republican Party gatherings in early states, which tend to attract a uniform demographic of older White voters. They were the sixth group to make their way through the eight-day program. Some like Navy veteran Leonard Schlingloff, 32, of Reedley, Calif., had decided to shift away from a career in car sales to try his hand at politics.

“I’ve never experienced a politician that had the same exact values as I do,” he said.

Others who were also made available for interviews by Never Back Down explained similar passion for the candidate they hope to elect without actually working on his campaign. Workers said they can hit between 30 and 85 homes a day depending on the density of the area, with about one in four knocks resulting in a voter interaction.

Marisa Kahn, 42, had moved up from Florida, and has already been working the doors in Iowa. The face of DeSantis was printed on her socks and canvas bag, and his name was etched across her T-shirt and hat.Sometimes she had to push back against the Trump mailers, which have claimed DeSantis wants to cut Social Security and Medicare, she said. (DeSantis opposes reforms that affect older Americans, but has not closed the door for changes to the program for younger generations.)She also said she has heard concerns from voters about the Florida governor’s age.

But just as often, she said there were people at the doors who had not yet tuned into the political season. That was one of the audiences the DeSantis donors hoped to win over with their early investment.

“I’ll educate them — someone who doesn’t know anything about him. And I go, ‘Do you know he took a whole plane of immigrants and sent them to Martha’s Vineyard?’” Kahn said. “And they are sitting there, like, ‘Is this man for real?’ And I say, ‘Look him up. Look at all the things he has actually done.’ And they are stunned, stunned.”

Photo: Kathryn Gamble for the Washington Post

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