The Head of Ron DeSantis’s Never Back Down Super PAC Resigns

Gov. Ron DeSantis’s political orbit confronted fresh upheaval on the eve of Thanksgiving as the chief executive of the super PAC that has effectively taken over his presidential campaign resigned after days of infighting among DeSantis allies over strategy, financing and how to blunt the momentum of one of his rivals, Nikki Haley.

That chief executive, Chris Jankowski, sent a resignation note on Wednesday to the board of Never Back Down, which has been the main pro-DeSantis super PAC. The resignation was effective immediately. In a statement from Mr. Jankowski issued by the group, he described his differences with them as “well beyond a difference of strategic opinion.”

Never Back Down, which had amassed $130 million over the summer, has played a critical role in supporting Mr. DeSantis. Mr. Jankowski’s departure caps days of internal tensions within the group over the next steps in their Republican primary race against the front-runner, Donald J. Trump, and comes seven weeks before the pivotal Iowa caucuses in January.

Presidential campaigns are legally barred from coordinating with super PACs. But the DeSantis campaign and Never Back Down have repeatedly pressed the boundaries of what super PACs usually do.

Never Back Down has been paying for some of the candidate’s travel and striving to build a field operation across the country and in three of the early-voting states. Mr. DeSantis, who has lost significant ground in polling against Mr. Trump since before he became a candidate, routinely appears at fund-raisers coordinated by the super PAC and has traveled across Iowa on a super PAC-funded bus attending super PAC events as a “special guest.”

Mr. DeSantis has a long history throughout his political career of cycling through different teams, a fact that people who have worked for him have attributed to his micromanaging style.

Chris Jankowski, the chief executive of Never Back Down who resigned on Wednesday, in 2014.Credit…Steve Helber/Associated Press

In the statement from Mr. Jankowski provided by a Never Back Down spokeswoman, he said, “Never Back Down’s main goal and sole focus has been to elect Gov. Ron DeSantis as president. Given the current environment it has become untenable for me to deliver on the shared goal and that goes well beyond a difference of strategic opinion. For the future of our country I support and pray Ron DeSantis is our 47th president.”

In the past several weeks, allies of Mr. DeSantis and his wife have repeatedly complained about ads that Never Back Down ran attacking his closest rival in the primary, Ms. Haley, in connection with China. His allies have questioned the messaging and depth of the ad-buying by the super PAC, according to two people briefed on the matter. A third said some allies believed Mr. DeSantis was being blamed by voters for the negative spots.

Since they came into existence nearly 15 years ago, super PACs have traditionally handled negative messaging and advertising against a candidate’s rival. But some DeSantis allies have come to believe that his own super PAC is too closely connected to him in the eyes of voters, and that Never Back Down’s work is a reason he is struggling in the polls. Campaign officials, meanwhile, have privately been critical of the group for running negative ads.

Some of the tensions flared last week at a strategy meeting held by Never Back Down at its Atlanta offices. The group’s main strategist, Jeff Roe, and a board member, Scott Wagner, who is a college friend of Mr. DeSantis, had a heated argument during a discussion about money, according to people briefed on the matter.

Mr. Roe and Mr. Wagner declined to comment on the dispute, which was first reported by NBC News.

One of the issues discussed by Never Back Down last week involved the transfer of $1 million to a new entity, Fight Right, which was set up by close allies of Mr. DeSantis, to broadcast its own spots attacking Ms. Haley.

Some members of Never Back Down — including Ken Cuccinelli, one of its original officials — expressed concern about how the group was handling the $1 million transfer. In an email to his colleagues, described by a person familiar with its content, Mr. Cuccinelli wrote, “The manner in which the Haley hit and its funding appears to be proceeding is exceedingly objectionable to me.” In later emails, another Never Back Down official indicated that the group had been given the sign-off to send the $1 million, and it went ahead, the person said.

The new Fight Right group was created by three people with close ties to Mr. DeSantis: David Dewhirst, a lawyer who worked in the governor’s office; Scott Ross, a Tallahassee lobbyist close to Mr. DeSantis; and Jeff Aaron, a Florida lawyer and DeSantis appointee.

In a statement sent by Fight Right on Tuesday, Mr. Dewhirst said the group would “join the fight with the premier DeSantis Super PAC, Never Back Down, to achieve a DeSantis victory.”

With the governor unhappy with some of the old super PAC’s ads, some allies see the new group as more closely aligned with his current campaign manager, James Uthmeier, according to two people briefed on the matter. Mr. DeSantis picked Mr. Uthmeier to replace his original campaign manager, Generra Peck, after a midsummer shake-up.

The DeSantis campaign adamantly denied any involvement from Mr. Uthmeier. Coordinating strategy between outside groups and campaigns is not allowed under federal law.

“The assertion that James has anything to do with the formulation of or the strategy being pursued by an outside entity is absurd and categorically false,” said Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for Mr. DeSantis.

A person familiar with the matter said Never Back Down officials held a previously scheduled briefing call with donors on Wednesday, during which Fight Right was described as analogous to a subsidiary. The person said the group’s officials — including Mr. Cuccinelli — suggested the only money going to Fight Right would be transfers from Never Back Down.

But the new entity was welcomed by the DeSantis campaign in general. “We are excited to see even more backers stepping up to support Ron DeSantis’s candidacy,” Mr. Romeo said.

Mr. Jankowski — a longtime political adviser to Leonard Leo, one of the most influential conservatives in legal circles in the country — was the architect of a 2010 Republican program known as Redmap, short for the Redistricting Majority Project, which helped conservatives achieve gains in redistricting efforts that lasted a decade.

Late on Wednesday, Adam Laxalt, the chairman of Never Back Down, announced in an internal message that Kristin Davison would now serve as chief executive, according to two people familiar with the matter. Ms. Davison has been a top official on the super PAC and a longtime colleague of Mr. Roe.

Jonathan Swan contributed reporting.