DeSantis' staff addresses campaign concerns at donor retreat amid strategy change: Sources

The Republican hopeful is engaging with mainstream media and reducing overhead.

Over the weekend, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a two-day retreat in Park City, Utah, where, sources said, senior campaign staffers briefed top donors on the state of his campaign as he looks to reset his run for the Republican presidential nomination.

There was an open discussion between donors and senior aides addressing concerns about the governor's White House bid so far, sources familiar with the event told ABC News.

The donor retreat was scheduled before the release of the campaign's second-quarter FEC filing in mid-July, which showed expenditures of some $8 million during the first six weeks of DeSantis' campaign. That spending rate led the DeSantis camp to cut roughly a dozen staffers, with more shakeups expected, sources have said.

People who attended the retreat appeared to leave "feeling more positive than before about the campaign," said Chad Wilbanks, a former executive director of the Texas Republican Party who supports DeSantis and was there.

Wilbanks told ABC News that some donors had questions about "fundraising expenses" after reading media reports about the burned cash, but he said "they were addressed" and brushed off suggestions the campaign overspent in the previous quarter.

He said senior aides expressed a fundraising goal he described as "very, very large." Wilbanks wouldn't share the number but insisted it was "very doable based on what he's been able to raise so far."

At the same time, Wilbanks said, "There was talk of having a little bit more of a leaner operation."

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Family Leadership Summit, July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the Family Leadership Summit, July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE

ABC News previously reported that the DeSantis campaign evaluated it burned through cash too quickly and hired too many people early in the campaign, with FEC documents listing more than 90 staffers.

On Monday, ABC News confirmed that the campaign was making multiple high-level staffing changes and had elevated the digital director, Ethan Eilon, to deputy campaign manager. (Eilon’s promotion was first reported by Bloomberg News and confirmed by a campaign spokesman.)

Generra Peck remains the campaign manager but, as ABC has reported, some people close to DeSantis' staff blame her for using up funding too quickly. Peck did not respond to a previous request for comment.

Meanwhile, Cody Hall, a top adviser to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, has been brought on as a senior communications adviser and campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo has been moved to communications director, sources said.

More broadly, DeSantis has apparently changed some of his strategy, such as how he engages with the news media.

His campaign had believed the governor could continue shunning mainstream outlets and stick to more friendly platforms like Fox News and other conservative news media. Recently, however, sources have said the governor's team has leaned toward having DeSantis do some mainstream network interviews and town halls.

Last week, DeSantis taped a sit-down with CNN's Jake Tapper, marking his first one-on-one mainstream news interview since he began his presidential campaign in May.

He has also participated in town hall-style events, like during a stop last week in Tega Cay, South Carolina, where he took questions from audience members.

In a statement on Monday, DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo said, in part: "No matter how much the media and D.C. elites try to destroy Ron DeSantis, they can't change the fact that this is a two-man race for the nomination. Ron DeSantis is ready to prove the doubters wrong yet again and our campaign is prepared to execute on his vision for the Great American Comeback as we transition into the next phase of winning this primary and beating Joe Biden."

DeSantis, who cruised to reelection as Florida governor last fall, has long been seen as former President Donald Trump's biggest challenge for the Republican nomination. But in the roughly two months since launching his campaign, DeSantis has seen little movement in national polls, according to FiveThirtyEight.

He currently trails Trump by more than 30 points in early surveys of the primary, though he is the No. 2 most-popular candidate.

"This is going to be a state-by-state contest," DeSantis said earlier this month. "We've worked really hard to build the type of organization in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that you need to actually be able to win these early [nominating] contests. And we're gonna continue doing that. We got a lot of work, but we've had a very, very favorable response."

"This is not something that, you know, I ever expected to just snap fingers and all of a sudden, you know, you win seven months before [anything] happens," DeSantis said on Fox News in early July.

PHOTO: Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation Hangar in West Columbia, S.C. July 18, 2023.
Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation Hangar in West Columbia, S.C. July 18, 2023.
Sean Rayford/AP

According to a recent Fox News South Carolina poll, likely Republican primary voters backed Trump by 48%. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley came next at 14%, with DeSantis at 13% and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at 10%.

DeSantis' focus on culture war issues, a hallmark of his governing style in Florida, where he is popular, has ignited controversies on the national stage.

His Utah donor retreat was held on the heels of Florida enacting new Black history standards that include a section of "benchmark clarifications," including one, for grades six-eight, that states "instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit." The standards were changed after the Florida Legislature passed DeSantis' "Stop-WOKE" law.

During a press conference on Friday in Salt Lake City, DeSantis appeared to distance himself from those education guidelines.

"I wasn't involved in it," he maintained. "But I think what they're doing is, I think that they're probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed being a blacksmith into doing things later in life."

"All of that is rooted in whatever is factual," DeSantis said then. "These were scholars that put that together. It was not anything that was done politically."

The standards have fueled criticism both from some Republicans, like DeSantis' primary opponent Chris Christie, and from the Biden administration.

Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday denounced them as "push[ing] propaganda to our children."

DeSantis later called that "absolutely ridiculous, totally outrageous."

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