At Utah donor conference, Ron DeSantis supporters optimistic about the campaign reboot

PARK CITY, Utah — When beloved fictional boxer Rocky Balboa needed to prepare for the fight of his life against the seemingly unbeatable Soviet boxer Ivan Draggo, he retreated to the rural mountains of the Soviet Union for a grueling training regime he hoped would help him win the fight no one thought he could win.

After two months of being bludgeoned by former President Donald Trump, some supporters of Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign see the Florida governor in a similar moment: DeSantis was once seen as the next great hope for conservatives, but is now in a political campaign few think he can win.

“When Rocky needed to beat Drago, he was out there chopping logs and running the mountains and just getting hard core,” Nick Iarossi, a DeSantis fundraiser and one of his earliest supporters, said. “Those are the things we are going to start doing.”

Iarossi was one of 70 donors and political bundlers that spent the weekend in the exclusive Stein Eriksen Lodge here to try and chart a path forward as DeSantis’ presidential campaign has stalled. Despite spending political cash at a far faster rate than anyone anticipated, DeSantis continues to trail Trump in the polls and is losing ground to a handful of candidates who are desperate to topple him from his second-place spot in the crowded GOP primary field.

The three-day event featured rounds of golf and cocktails in the famed ski resort town, along with a briefing Sunday by campaign manager Generra Peck. Some in the campaign have assigned her blame for the slow start, but for now she continues to have the support of DeSantis. 

Despite the stumbles, the mood at the donor event was hopeful. Six people who were in attendance said the Sunday briefing was “honest” and acknowledged early campaign missteps, but also maintained a sense of optimism for a strategy moving forward that will include leaner staff and no longer running from a perceived position of being the front-runner — a position of strength some in DeSantis political orbit thought he would reach once he launched his campaign.

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“What really went well, I thought, was the fact that Generra really looked like she was in control and really had a handle on things,” one bundler in attendance said. “She had a great handle on the numbers and what went wrong and what needed to be done.”

The person said Peck is without question the “boss” of day-to-day operations, with Florida GOP pollster Ryan Tyson as her top deputy. Some of DeSantis’ supporters have pushed for a shakeup at the top of the campaign, blaming Peck for an early bloated campaign staff that caused the campaign to spend early at an unsustainable rate. Those at the Utah confab not only felt her job was safe for now, but were signing off on the campaign reset she outlined.

“It was a vision that needs to be executed moving forward, but she outlined it well and I think there remains a path moving forward if we can pull this off,” another donor said.

One specific area that received attention was the number of live events and rallies DeSantis has held since launching his campaign on May 24. There is a growing sense among a handful of donors NBC News interviewed that the cost of planning and holding such events is a main driver of higher-than-expected costs. 

DeSantis’ campaign, not including disbursements from pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, spent nearly $135,000 in rent for events during its first six weeks, including at least $87,000 for the Utah event, according to campaign finance reports. The campaign also listed 92 staffers, a large number of whom were hired for event production.

“They told us they want to be better stewards of the funds,” said Hal Lambert, an early DeSantis fundraiser who was at the event. “Instead of saying, ‘We want to go here and we will drop $5,000 for a particular event,’ why not look around and see if we can do the same things for $900.”

Another bundler made a dubious comparison when asked about the campaign’s heavy early spending.

“Scott Walker was right,” the person said referring to the former Wisconsin governor who ran for president in 2016.

Walker told Fox News last week that DeSantis’ campaign needs to be more “lean.”

“By lean, I mean, even though they had a great second quarter in terms of fundraising — actually, even outpaced the Trump campaign — the fact is they are burning up a fair amount of that money,” Walker said.

The Walker comparison might be a sensitive one for some in DeSantis’ world. As Trump began to reassume his position atop public polling in early 2023 and regain his mantle as head of the Republican Party, some were making the not-so-flattering comparison to Walker, who was at one point considered the front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination but dropped out before the Iowa caucuses. 

The attempt at what is being seen as a campaign reset comes as DeSantis is under national fire for recent changes to standards focused on teaching Black history in public schools. The new language, which was recommended by the state’s African American History Task Force, includes reference to the fact that slaves could have “developed skills … for their personal benefit.”

DeSantis during a Friday news conference in Salt Lake City said he was not personally involved with the new language, but said the changes are “rooted in whatever is factual.” He noted that some slaves learned how to be blacksmiths.

It was the same day Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Jacksonville to condemn the changes.

“When I think about what is happening here in Florida, I am deeply concerned,” Harris said.

The issue came up at the donor retreat, with Peck and other DeSantis advisers explaining that the governor was not directly involved in the recommendations, and that the changes were not done by political consultants but rather a panel of academics and educators.

“He was not chairing anything,” Lambert said of the task force that made the recommendations. “It was not like some far-right group of consultants; they pointed to the fact it was a group of Black educators.”

He said that strategically, the campaign’s true “reset” will come during next month’s debates in Milwaukee. DeSantis will no doubt get a lot of attention — and face a lot of “arrows” — especially if Trump stays away from the event, as he has indicated he will.

Lambert also said that the likelihood of additional Trump indictments will impact the trajectory of the race, and that he thinks at least “there is a possibility” Trump’s legal troubles make it so he must drop out of the race.

“If another indictment out of D.C. comes,” he said, “for example, I could see them fast-tracking that before the end of the year.”

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