From financiers to UFO believers, scores of GOP megadonors are flocking to DeSantis

UFO buff Robert Bigelow contributed a record $10 million to his reelection.

November 23, 2022, 12:54 PM

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appears to be eying a run for the presidency in 2024, cruised to reelection this month with the backing of a Rolodex of wealthy GOP donors -- topped by an aerospace mogul who says that UFOs are real and that space aliens are here on Earth, "right under people's noses."

Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas hotel executive who went on to found Bigelow Aerospace with the goal of building the first commercial space station, donated a record $10 million to a political action committee supporting DeSantis' reelection campaign in what was the state's single largest political donation ever made by an individual, according to campaign filings.

The donation, which was Bigelow's first major contribution to a Florida candidate, made him DeSantis' single biggest individual benefactor over the last two years.

After making relatively modest political donations in prior years, Bigelow ramped up his donations in 2022, writing six- to seven-figure checks to a variety of Republican causes across the country, including donating a combined $8 million to a super PAC supporting Nevada Republicans running for Congress, and giving $2 million to the GOP-aligned super PAC Club for Growth Action.

Although he made no contributions during the last election cycle to former President Donald Trump or Trump's other fundraising vehicles, Bigelow gave contributions to a super PAC supporting Trump-endorsed Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, and a PAC connected to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Bigelow, who has been a vocal advocate in the search for extraterrestrial life, told CBS' 60 Minutes in 2017 that he is "absolutely convinced" that aliens exist and that "there has been, and is, an existing presence" of UFOs.

"I spent millions and millions and millions -- I probably spent more as an individual than anybody else in the United States has ever spent on this subject," Bigelow told 60 Minutes. His company was part of a multimillion-dollar Pentagon program that investigated UFO sightings, according to The New York Times, which said the program reported no conclusions about the origin of unidentified objects.

Robert Bigelow, owner of Budget Suites of America and Bigelow Aerospace, listens to Nevada Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo during an event with supporters at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, Nov. 14, 2022.
Las Vegas Sun via AP

His record contribution to DeSantis puts Bigelow on a long list of wealthy supporters who could support the Florida governor if he and Trump face off in the 2024 presidential primary. GOP megadonors who have already endorsed DeSantis for 2024 include billionaire financier Ken Griffin, who after Election Day this month told Politico, "I think it's time to move on to the next generation."

Griffin, who was the GOP's biggest donor at the federal level during the 2022 election cycle, previously gave $100,000 to Trump's 2016 inaugural committee and has continued to donate to the Republican National Committee, which been closely aligned with Trump.

But Griffin was the second largest individual donor, after Bigelow, to a pro-DeSantis PAC, donating $5 million early in the election cycle. He later gave another $5 million to the Republican Party of Florida, which was a major supporter of DeSantis' campaign.

Other big-name Trump supporters who became major DeSantis supporters this past cycle include financier Walter Buckley Jr., who donated $1.3 million to DeSantis' PAC; Home Depot cofounder Bernard Marcus, who donated $500,000; and shipping executive Richard Uihlein, who, together with his wife, donated a combined $1 million, according to filings.

The longtime conservative PAC Club for Growth also contributed $2 million to DeSantis' PAC this past cycle.

Of note, Florida supermarket heiress Julie Fancelli -- a major Trump donor who reportedly helped fund the Jan. 6 rally on the Ellipse -- also supported DeSantis in recent years, giving a total of roughly $59,000 to his PAC in 2018 and 2019.

Republican gubernatorial candidate for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2022.
Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images

Buoyed by support like this, allies of DeSantis last week registered a new independent super PAC dubbed "Ron to the Rescue" to back DeSantis' potential presidential run. The organization has already launched its first round of digital ad campaigns and this week is launching its first television ads in Iowa, only a week after Trump announced last Tuesday that he was running again in 2024.

"Right after last Tuesday, my phone was exploding with supporters urging us to move forward again and get the governor's back," said California-based GOP operative John Thomas, who had been working on and off to organize the super PAC over the last year.

"The only way we saw Gov. DeSantis having a meaningful path against Trump or to the nomination was if the Republicans didn't win the majorities in the midterms and Trump-backed candidates dramatically underperformed," Thomas said. "Not only is that exactly what ended up happening, but on the flip side, Gov. DeSantis not only got reelected but he created his own self-made red tsunami in Florida, turning it from a swing state to a red state."

Thomas said backers of the new super PAC include "some former Donald Trump donors" as well as "traditional DeSantis supporters." He said a "prominent law enforcement union" is also "financially supporting" the super PAC and endorsing DeSantis.

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