‘I’ll permanently f*ck up your biorhythms’: The inside story of the DeSantis super PAC’s failure.
“They made this giant team of rivals and dedicated professionals with all this experience and then ran it like an Occupy Wall Street group.”
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IN THE HISTORY OF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS, no political action committee launched with so much promise, burned through so much money, and failed with so much spectacular acrimony as Never Back Down.
The super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis raised $145 million and spent 90 percent of it between its February 2023 launch and the end of the year—devolving into a horror show of shakeups, terrible headlines, and political discord along the way.
The bitterness was so bad there was talk of a “mutiny.” During an argument over hard-to-trace “dark money” from the nation’s top conservative judicial activist, one board member threatened a consultant that “I’ll permanently fuck up your biorhythms.”
In another tense moment, board chairman and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt said people in Never Back Down might have illegally burned through a federal firewall between super PACs and federal campaigns.
“I hope you like orange,” Laxalt told another consultant, referencing the color of a jail jumpsuit. Laxalt resigned soon after.
As told to The Bulwark by more than 20 officials, staffers, contractors, and high-level insiders, the story of Never Back Down’s toxic implosion offers an unusually candid look at the tensions and skulduggery rife in presidential campaigns. High-dollar consultants and Type A personalities knifed each other, often using the media as the blade. Hairline cracks of mistrust broke into compound fractures of headline-grabbing paranoia and recrimination.
Many spoke to The Bulwark anonymously out of fear of retribution, the risk of reputational damage or the concern over legal exposure stemming from a new watchdog complaint alleging the super PAC and DeSantis’s campaign illegally coordinated. Both DeSantis and the super PAC deny the allegations.
At the center of Never Back Down’s big drama, big ideas, and big spending stood a close Laxalt ally: the star consultant Jeff Roe, his mammoth firm Axiom Strategies, and a web of affiliated companies that accounted for $22 million in Never Back Down’s billing in 2023, according to an internal Never Back Down analysis of campaign finance information filed last Wednesday.
Roe became a target early on for Donald Trump and his supporters, who conducted what some called a “psyop” on DeSantis designed to sow mistrust about the consultant. Unreported until now, the super PAC backing South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott secretly fueled the division—chiefly by discovering and leaking a debate advice memo Roe clandestinely penned for DeSantis. It caused major suspicion inside the DeSantis campaign—and between it and the super PAC—about who the leaker was.
It was a constant power struggle from the jump: The DeSantis operation in Tallahassee pitted against Roe’s Axiom team in Atlanta. The Tallahassee crew thought the professional consultants were pretend experts who masked fecklessness with data and jargon, while Atlanta thought Tallahassee exemplified a Dunning–Kruger effect of inexperienced rubes overestimating their abilities.
“In hindsight, we were fucked from the beginning,” one Never Back Down consultant summed up.
House DeSantis v. House Axiom
Never Back Down was supposed to be all about DeSantis, but it revolved heavily around Roe and his outgoing, always-in-the-news personality—one that was antithetical to DeSantis’s standard operating procedure, in which consultants are encouraged to keep low profiles and out of the press.
And during the summer of 2023, Roe was often in the headlines.
There was a “belligerent” August 13 bar dispute involving Roe and assorted Never Back Down officials and Trump supporters. There was the August 17 story of the Roe debate memo for DeSantis. There was the August 31 Roe presentation to donors, in which he suggested DeSantis only had 60 days to catch Trump. After that, the Trump campaign began issuing a daily countdown email that accused Roe of giving DeSantis “The Kiss of Death.” It drove the DeSantis campaign crazy.
The bad headlines and chatter ultimately led last fall to a power struggle between Roe and one of the five Never Back Down board members, Scott Wagner, who was a DeSantis political appointee and a friend from Yale. Wagner had honed his combative style in the courtroom as a Miami maritime attorney.
A wave of damaging leaks about the Roe-Wagner dispute followed, as did resignations and firings in November and December. The fight culminated with Roe’s defiant December 16 resignation in which he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wagner blamed the leaks on Roe and his Axiom employees in the Never Back Down struggle between “House DeSantis v. House Axiom.” Roe and Axiom employees denied the leaking accusations.
Along with fellow Florida-based board members Adrian Lukis and Tre’ Evers, Wagner clashed with the strategic decisions of the other two board members, who were allied with Roe: Laxalt and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Both Laxalt and Cuccinelli, in turn, worried that the Florida appointees were illegally coordinating with the DeSantis campaign.
Wagner, Lukis, and Evers denied the accusation, describing it as an empty and baseless threat meant to muzzle them and keep the organization in control of Axiom, which accounted for 23 of the employees on Never Back Down’s 72-person staff.
“It felt to me like Roe took over the mainframe to keep us out of the room,” Wagner told The Bulwark. “If you didn’t agree with what Roe wanted to do, they belittle and insult—if you still don’t agree, in my opinion and estimation, they seemed willing to use the media to hold us hostage. And if you’re not willing to do what I was doing in November, which came with a public smearing, you’re forced to ride it out with them.”
House Axiom, in turn, believed that the Florida crew was out of its depth and had no clue about presidential politics.
“These aren’t serious people,” said Roe, swiping at Wagner for only knowing about politics from TV shows.
“Wagner watches The West Wing. He thinks politics is like House of Cards. In reality, he turns it into an episode of Veep. He thinks that everybody has some sort of nefarious angle,” Roe said.
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The Rise of Roe
In 2016, Roe exploded on to the national scene by running Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. With Roe’s guidance, Cruz won Iowa and was the last Republican standing against Trump, before he reluctantly bent the knee.
Roe’s success in Iowa and his team’s understanding of the complicated mechanics of the state’s caucus process were deeply attractive to DeSantis and his inner circle as they began sketching out the governor’s presidential bid during his 2022 re-election. DeSantis won that race by more than 19 percentage points, and he was beating Trump in some hypothetical polls. He was a darling of conservative media and had more than $80 million socked in a political committee ready to be pumped into what eventually became Never Back Down.
And the attraction was mutual: DeSantis looked like a good potential client to Roe, who boasts of running the largest firm in the industry with 400 employees, as many as 1,000 campaigns, top-shelf corporate clients, and the goal of handling about $1 billion of the roughly $7 billion spent every cycle in GOP races.
A company prospectus pegged Axiom’s revenue goal for the 2023–24 cycle at $250 million, according to a Washington Post article that made sure to include a dig from Trump in an April speech: “[Roe] is good at taking money out of your wallet,” Trump said.
By commanding so much market share, Axiom and its related companies provide wraparound services that span from mail programs, to TV and digital advertising, to strategic consulting, to polling work alongside WPA Intelligence—which is a firm that Roe owns a 27.5 percent stake in and that also works for clients such as the Club for Growth, which, in turn, can also operate in tandem with other Roe clients. For instance: Never Back Down quietly funneled $2.75 million to one of the Club for Growth’s affiliated super PACs this summer.
With such a big firm offering so many services and relationships, Roe boasts of offering lower rates overall—and even some of Roe’s critics in DeSantis’s orbit acknowledge that.
“You don’t do presidential politics for money. You do it to win,” Roe said.
His concern about being accused of soaking Never Back Down was so acute that he boasted July 31 to a staffer about leaking campaign finance data to the Washington Post to shape the coverage about the super PAC’s contributions and expenditures. The story made sure to mention, at Roe’s insistence, that there was “a $409,000 in-kind donation to the group from Axiom.”
Roe also has a reputation as an excellent salesman, skilled with PowerPoint presentations and possessing an ability to muster persuasive, off-the-cuff, data-filled arguments about voter-turnout rates, compositions of electorates in races across the country, and related polling and messaging.
Critics like Wagner believe Roe is too wed to polling and too full of himself. Admirers like Laxalt, however, praise Roe as the smartest guy in the room. And as one of Axiom’s clients, Laxalt played a key role in bringing Roe to Never Back Down.
Laxalt used Axiom when he ran unsuccessfully for Nevada governor in 2018 and the U.S. Senate in 2022. And Laxalt had a personal relationship with DeSantis: They roomed together years ago, during Navy officer training.
Laxalt had wanted to chair the DeSantis campaign. But neither DeSantis nor his wife (who is the governor’s top adviser) thought Laxalt was up to the job. Others in DeSantis’s orbit eye-rolled Laxalt for his pomposity. (Two DeSantis advisers chuckled about the time Laxalt boasted to donors about his intelligence because he’s “double Georgetown,” a reference to his undergraduate degrees from the Washington, D.C. university.)
Team of Rivals
But while DeSantis had reservations, he couldn’t deny his old friend any involvement in his election effort, so Laxalt was placed at the super PAC. There Laxalt successfully pushed to become chairman, which annoyed Cuccinelli, who had initiated the creation of the super PAC in the first place and wanted to lead it.
Laxalt then helped bring Roe to the super PAC in March, about a month after its creation.
“Adam was always whispering in Ron’s ear to hire Jeff. He thinks he’s the greatest,” a source said. “Cuccinelli admires Jeff as well.”
But Generra Peck, DeSantis’s 2022 campaign manager—who became his first presidential campaign manager in May—was opposed to Roe.
The hard decisions were left to Chris Jankowski, Never Back Down’s CEO and temporary board member. He was allied with neither House DeSantis nor House Axiom.
“Generra was always screaming at Jankowski: ‘If you hire Jeff Roe, don’t let him take over Never Back Down. Don’t let this become Axiom’s super PAC.’ But that’s exactly what happened,” said a DeSantis adviser. “Jankowski was in an impossible position. He was between these factions. He’s in the middle of the road. And you know what’s in the middle of the road? Roadkill.”
The predicament underscored the fundamental tension in Never Back Down: DeSantis wanted Roe, but ultimately didn’t trust him. And that distrust metastasized as DeSantis’s fortunes waned and the super PAC fretted about what was wanted “in Tallahassee.”
Jankowski eventually quit but never explained why.
At the start, senior DeSantis adviser (and longtime Peck ally) Phil Cox was advising Never Back Down. Cox and Roe had mutual suspicions of each other, and Cuccinelli still bore hard feelings against Cox that stemmed from Cuccinelli’s loss in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race when Cox was the Republican Governors Association’s executive director.
When Jankowski named Roe as the super PAC’s chief strategist, Cox quit, telling others it was too wired with Axiom employees and was “too much of the Jeff Roe show.” Cox’s departure also followed an ABC News report in May about how he golfed at a Trump-owned course during a controversial Saudi-financed LIV Golf event. Cox allies suspected Axiom of involvement in the story because it had clients opposed to LIV Golf.
In December, as the infighting worsened at Never Back Down, the board brought Cox back as an unpaid adviser to stabilize the super PAC. Roe quit shortly thereafter.
Changing the Game
Never Back Down roared to life last spring, even before DeSantis officially announced his candidacy May 24 in an embarrassing glitch-filled Twitter Spaces launch. At the time, the super PAC looked indomitable. It had a stable of top political consultants and a plan to revolutionize what a super PAC could do.
Normally, super PACs are small, Madison Avenue-style attack ad factories that churn out negative commercials to destroy the candidacies of rivals. Super PACs can take unlimited contributions from individuals or corporations, while federal candidate campaigns are limited to receiving $3,300 in the primary and $3,300 in the general election from each individual contributor. Which is why the actual candidate campaigns typically raise less money than their quasi-affiliated super PACs.
To prevent candidates from circumventing this “hard money” limitation, their campaigns are not supposed to coordinate messaging with “soft money” super PACs.
Never Back Down was born of the idea that it would take on many of the major costly functions of a campaign: travel, staffing, door-knocking for voters, staging events. It would organize the four early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina). And the super PAC would also organize and hire staff in the states that would vote later, in March.
As the election progressed, the DeSantis campaign would then take over the field program established by Never Back Down in these states as it ramped up its hard-dollar fundraising and handled most of its own paid messaging.
“The reason why this is going to be expansive and a completely different kind of super PAC is really because of the movement you are seeing form behind Ron DeSantis,” Kristin Davison, the COO of Never Back Down told the Washington Post in April. “Our plan right now will be to tap into that grass roots movement, sign up these supporters and then engage them into action.”
That work cost money, which is why Never Back Down got the lion’s share of startup capital—$82.5 million—from DeSantis’s state political committee. It would go on to raise about $50 million more by July and end up with $96.5 million in the bank by midsummer.
“This Wasn’t Fun Work”
The consultants at Never Back Down understood the concept. But some didn’t believe it would work.
“There was so much hubris with the idea in the first place: The idea you could create the first super PAC that could serve as a campaign. ‘We’re going to be the first people who do this revolutionary experiment and it’s gonna be awesome.’ And I’m sitting there thinking in this first meeting that this revolution hasn’t happened yet for a reason,” one of the consultants said.
To make the process more democratic, the media vendors and consultants would have all-day strategic sessions. They would vote on concepts and ad scripts using ranked-choice voting. Some said Roe would sometimes privately pull people aside to influence the direction he wanted to go. Others denied that happened. Some said Roe wouldn’t share all of the polling and research from WPA Intelligence. Others said he did.
“Normally, you have a small team and one media vendor,” another consultant said. “We had four doing advertising here. From what Jankowski told me, ‘This is what Tallahassee wants because they don’t want Roe to take over.’ Super PACs are normally a tight circle. It’s not bureaucratic. You come up with a plan. You execute. It’s fun work. This wasn’t fun work. And regardless of what they say, this was the Jeff Roe Show.”
Another disagreed with that assessment, saying Roe was perhaps either too hands-off or too inclusive. And the process, therefore, was a mess of amorphous direct democracy.
“They made this giant team of rivals and dedicated professionals with all this experience and then ran it like an Occupy Wall Street group. There was no perceived leader or person,” the consultant said.
“This should be a course they teach at Harvard over how not to lead an organization. The super PAC can’t coordinate with the campaign. And the super PAC was micromanaged in a weirdly opaque way.”
Another Never Back Down consultant who was not affiliated with House DeSantis or House Axiom said the process was collaborative and didn’t fault Roe.
“We were selling something Republicans don’t want to buy: DeSantis,” the consultant said. “There’s only so much you can do with ads. And we didn’t have an advertising problem as much as a candidate problem.”
There was also a failure in Tallahassee to realize that the four separate criminal indictments of Trump that began in March would change the trajectory of the race in the former president’s favor. The super PAC spent $15 million on ads to try to staunch the bleeding.
But “Tallahassee” sent a coded message: It didn’t like the ads coming out of Atlanta, where Never Back Down was headquartered. The DeSantis campaign also expressed discomfort at how often Never Back Down would give stories to the Washington Post (the embodiment of the dreaded “Acela Media” that DeSantis loathed). But Never Back Down believed that having a good relationship with national media would at least lead to positive news stories for DeSantis, who was otherwise getting crushed by negative publicity.
The mutual mistrust was intensifying. And by the summer, the DeSantis campaign was already starting to go broke.
“People Here Think You’re a Spy”
On June 22, DeSantis sent Taryn Fenske, the communications director from his gubernatorial office, to go work at Never Back Down.
Politico Florida broke the news and Trump’s social media army sprang into action claiming (falsely) that there was a shakeup at Never Back Down and that Fenske was swooping in to sit on top of two of the organization’s top media liaisons, Erin Perrine and Matt Wolking.
When Fenske stepped into the office, she received a frosty reception.
“I can’t let you in there by yourself. Everyone’s pissed off about the story,” Jankowski told Fenske. “You confirmed you’re coming over here. People got blindsided and now they’re getting attacked.”
Perrine conveyed her displeasure, telling Fenske, “I hate process stories. I hate stories about staff.”
In the coming days, Fenske said, she tried to get her bearings and figure out the best way to operate at Never Back Down. She was dispatched not to do communications but instead to be an avatar for the sensibility and style of both Ron and Casey DeSantis.
Others suspected espionage.
“People here think you’re a spy. I don’t. We can get to a time when they don’t,” Jankowski said.
“Spy? This is crazy,” Fenske recalled saying. “We were all supposed to be working towards the same goal, same team.”
A few weeks later, the pressure mounted on Never Back Down when it became clear the DeSantis campaign was bankrupt, leading to layoffs and shakeups.
Unable to communicate privately with the super PAC, the campaign sent up a flare via the media: a campaign memo given to NBC News that essentially called on Never Back Down to scrap the plans for organizing in the March states and to start advertising in the expensive Boston media market to reach New Hampshire voters.
Roe, Davison, and Jankowski didn’t want to spend so much money so early on TV there, but they felt they had no choice but to “follow the commander’s intent,” according to one.
With the DeSantis campaign in critical care, the super PAC became its life-support system. It began hosting DeSantis in Iowa and New Hampshire at almost all of his events and even paying some of the freight of his private jet travel in a unique arrangement detailed by the Washington Post (much to the displeasure of “Tallahassee”).
The close relationship between DeSantis and Never Back Down blurred the lines and tested the limits of the degree to which a candidate can work with a super PAC. The meetings with, and guidance from, lawyers increased.
DeSantis Gets Paranoid
Because of the prohibition on private coordination between the super PAC and campaign, Roe posted the memo along with other data and research on Axiom’s website. The information was essentially hiding in plain sight.
But that wasn’t what primarily concerned DeSantis.
DeSantis was outraged because the memo contained some phrases—like the criticism that Chris Christie was “auditioning for a show on MSNBC”—that he had been privately using on the Never Back Down bus, said two advisers who spoke with the governor.
“The governor didn’t just think much of the advice was stupid, he thought it was tantamount to a betrayal of his trust,” the adviser said. “He felt spied on.”
Also, the memo wasn’t authorized by the Never Back Down board. And the campaign didn’t even know about it until the New York Times reported it. Trump’s campaign had a field day with the situation, at DeSantis’s expense.
The publication of the memo furthered internal divisions. Some senior advisers suspected that Roe had caused the document to be intentionally leaked or that it was leaked by some of the Axiom employees or by allies of Roe’s on the campaign staff (yes, they were there, too).
The super PAC, in turn, thought someone in the campaign had leaked the document.
None of it made sense. Because it wasn’t true.
The real culprits were two operatives from Tim Scott’s Trust In the Mission super PAC, which had been trawling the Axiom website in search of just this sort of information hidden by Roe on the web. One of the TIM Pac consultants, Luke Thompson, had firsthand experience with the scenario. He had worked on an Ohio super PAC for J.D. Vance in 2022 and had also posted inside information on a website for the candidate. It was discovered and leaked to Politico by the rival campaign of Josh Mandel, on whose behalf Roe was working.
A year later, turnabout was fair play for Thompson.
“The candidate needs to be able to trust the person running the super PAC [to] use good judgment,” said Thompson, who credited a fellow operative for finding the memo on Axiom’s website. “The super PAC director needs to understand the candidate’s worldview and stay inside of it. Communicating legally via public forums isn’t sufficient—and without trust and discipline, it can be counterproductive.”
A few days later, during a presentation to donors right before the first debate in Milwaukee, Roe appeared to put an expiration date on DeSantis’s candidacy: 60 days. Operatives with Trump’s campaign obtained a secret recording of Roe’s remarks and leaked it to the press. Roe says his remarks were taken out of context. Then Politico ran an extensive article about how Roe and pollster Chris Wilson had a new technology and were using it on DeSantis’s behalf.
The article produced a bump in fundraising amid all the bad news. But DeSantis and his team thought it was self-serving.
So did Wagner, the Never Back Down board member who then decided to take a more active role.
“At a super PAC, you need people who want none of the notoriety and who give all of the loyalty,” Wagner said. “With these people, we got folks who wanted all of the notoriety and gave none of the loyalty.”
A Mass Shooting and an “After Action Report”
By that point, DeSantis was so concerned he was being spied on by Never Back Down staff that he would try to isolate himself in the back of the super PAC’s bus during swings through Iowa. And two of his loyalists on the Never Back Down board, Wagner and Lukis, were pushing to have Fenske on the bus because the governor trusted her.
Then, on August 26, at a Pizza Ranch in Garner, Iowa, the complicated arrangement between the candidate and the super PAC became even more complex. The governor was informed by Fenske on the super PAC bus that there was a mass shooting by a white supremacist in Jacksonville.
The issue of who could say what to the governor became a point of contention. To what degree do coordination rules apply when a super PAC employee talks about coordination messaging with a governor about an official act rather than a campaign act?
Memories are hazy. Fenske and two others recall her butting heads on the bus with Davison and Perrine because they were concerned about illegal coordination and wanted to have more facts about the shooting before DeSantis spoke with the media outside the bus. Davison, Perrine, and another staffer downplayed the idea that there was a major dispute and said they didn’t recall any conversation about illegal coordination.
The super PAC created a six-page “After Action Report,” reviewed by The Bulwark, that time-stamped who said and did what on the bus outside the Pizza Ranch. Some said the report was simply an analysis to determine how they could have better deployed DeSantis sooner to the media; others said it was prompted over concerns about illegal coordination as well (the issue does not appear in the report).
The report, quoting another unnamed staffer, said that Fenske was so insistent on DeSantis quickly addressing the press that she said the mass shooting, “is not that bad of a situation, he can still gaggle.” Fenske called that a “lie,” and pointed out she was never asked for her input on the After Action Report, nor had she ever heard of the document until it was brought to her attention by a reporter.
DeSantis, who overheard some of the disagreement, was so concerned about what transpired that he was about to tell the super PAC to ban Axiom employees from the bus, a knowledgeable source said.
“You had Axiom employees accusing someone he trusts of breaking the law when she wasn’t, and they got in the way of him doing his job as governor,” the source said.
Fenske said there was no lawbreaking.
“They used the threat of coordination to intimidate and create all these silos, even in the most minute things, to hold the power. That’s why they liked silos, information is power,” Fenske said.
“Axiom had a stranglehold on the entire operation. It took over everything. There was always this claim that Jeff Roe was only really involved in overseeing the field program and not the-day-to-day, but it was clear who was calling the shots.”
She said officials at Never Back Down also dissuaded her from talking to board members like Lukis, a Tallahassee lobbyist who hired her in the governor’s office when he was the chief of staff there.
That close relationship, though, worried Never Back Down officials who knew that the organization was under mounting scrutiny from both opponents and the media over alleged coordination.
Moving into fall, Wagner and Lukis inserted themselves more into the daily operations on the board, where they served as unpaid members. They were resisted by fellow board members Laxalt and Cuccinelli, who each were paid board members earning $15,000 monthly.
“Cuccinelli was just offended they were getting involved in ads and polling,” said an insider.
Jankowski, the fifth board member who was still serving as CEO, tried to appease both sides.
Then Laxalt unexpectedly showed up in September in Atlanta, saying he had moved there to “take charge.” He openly disagreed with Wagner and Lukis. Wagner began mocking Laxalt as “Al Haig” (a reference to the former secretary of state who infamously—and incorrectly—said, “I am in control here” after President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981).
A month later, a weary Jankowski stepped down from the board and was replaced by Florida political consultant Tre’ Evers. Jankowski remained CEO. For the time.
With a majority of the board now in their control, the House DeSantis wing of Never Back Down had majority control of how the millions of dollars were to be spent. And they wanted to unload negative ads on Nikki Haley, who by then was leading DeSantis in New Hampshire and was essentially tied with him in Iowa, where DeSantis had staked his candidacy.
“People are freaking out about the Iowa poll. Everyone needs to settle down,” Jankowski told Wagner in a text message on October 30.
Wagner said they need to destroy Haley, even though there could be some blowback.
“When you kill somebody, they will fight back and you might get wounded, but you cannot stop. You must kill her,” Wagner replied via text.
The organization then ran two negative ads attacking Haley, but they were pulled down sooner than Wagner wanted. The ads were replaced with a positive commercial touting the endorsement of DeSantis by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. This made no sense to Wagner because the DeSantis campaign was already running its own spot about her endorsement.
Wagner was told the attack ads weren’t testing well. Wagner and Evers questioned the validity of this focus-grouping and polling and said the organization was doing too much research on ads.
But the PAC’s pollster, Chris Wilson, said he was just “following directives from both its original and subsequent leadership” and that it “emphasized ad testing.”
Ultimately, about $7.6 million on polling, data research, and focus grouping was billed by WPA Intelligence, more than half of which Wilson said was passed through to other firms for work that his company subcontracted out.
“Fuck Up Your Biorhythms”
On November 14, Roe and Wagner had it out after an all-day meeting.
Roe was weary of being constantly questioned by Wagner and Lukis.
“My biorhythms are drained,” he said, which annoyed Wagner, who was already irked and felt stymied by Roe, his allies, and his Axiom employees.
Soon the discussion turned to the issue of a $1.5 million pledge to DeSantis from conservative judicial activist Leonard Leo.
Wagner wanted to steer the money to a new super PAC, which would ultimately be named Fight Right, in order to attack Haley, since Never Back Down seemed to have so much resistance to that strategy.
Roe, however, accused Wagner of wanting to use the money for a fundraising effort managed by DeSantis adviser Phil Cox, the consultant with whom Roe and Cuccinelli had a strained relationship.
Roe said the money should stay at Never Back Down.
“Why don’t you pull it out of your ass and hand it over?” Roe said to Wagner about the money, egging him on.
“Why don’t you come over here and try to pull it out of my ass?” Wagner, his voice rising, said.
Roe started to move as if he was going to get up for a physical confrontation, Wagner recalls. Roe says that wasn’t true; he was still. Either way, Wagner threatened him.
“If you get up, I’m gonna permanently fuck up your biorhythms,” Wagner said.
Roe rolled his eyes, smirked, and looked at his iPad.
“Mutiny,” Resignations, Firings
The plans for Fight Right proceeded. The new super PAC was formed in Tallahassee by allies of the governor. Cuccinelli and Laxalt began expressing louder and louder concerns that there was illegal coordination.
“People are going to go to jail over this,” Cuccinelli told one Republican at Never Back Down.
Cuccinelli papered his file with an email, obtained by NBC, that raised legal concerns.
“The manner in which the Haley hit and its funding appears to be proceeding is exceedingly objectionable to me, and by this email I ask Cabell Hobbs, in his capacity as Board Secretary, to preserve this email as part of the board records,” Cuccinelli wrote.
But with a majority of the board now insisting that Never Back Down seed Fight Right with $1 million, the transfer of funds was made by Jankowski, still the CEO.
Laxalt objected in a private phone call on November 20, Jankowski told others.
“Chris, you’re going to jail like the rest of them. I hope you like orange,” Laxalt said to Jankowski, according to two others briefed on the call.
The next day, 24 hours before Thanksgiving, Jankowski quit. The news instantly leaked to the New York Times. House DeSantis went apoplectic. Jankowski was replaced as CEO by the Never Back Down COO, Kristin Davison.
On Friday, a handful of top Never Back Down staffers held a conference call to decide what to do. They weren’t sure if laws were being broken. They didn’t know if they would get fired. And they weren’t sure about the new direction of the House DeSantis-controlled board linked to “Tallahassee.”
One Axiom employee suggested signing a letter demanding a new direction from the board or Never Back Down employees would quit.
“That’s mutiny,” another staffer replied.
The idea went nowhere.
Laxalt quit the board that Sunday, on November 26. He was replaced as chairman by Wagner.
On December 1, the New York Times broke the news of Laxalt’s departure. It was the day before DeSantis was set to complete his 99-county tour of Iowa. This milestone was further overshadowed by the firing that day of Davison, Perrine, and another Axiom employee at Never Back Down, Matt Palmisano.
On December 12, the Associated Press reported that there were “concerns” about illegal coordination between the super PAC and the DeSantis campaign. Less than a week later, the AP reported that the Campaign Legal Center watchdog group had filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against DeSantis alleging he broke campaign finance laws.
Wagner and DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said no laws were broken and everything was reviewed and approved by lawyers to ensure compliance.
The coordination accusation, Wagner said, was a political smokescreen.
“It felt like anytime some perceived power slipping away or that they did not own a monopoly on decision-making and money, I felt raising coordination was a move made to try to scare to keep power within,” Wagner said. “Choosing not to 100 percent cede control and money to NBD ad infinitum was not improper, it was just objectionable to some.”
“I can’t believe it ended this way,” Roe wrote in a post on Twitter/X that featured an exit statement in which he quoted Martin Luther King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
The Puzzle Falls Apart
By that point, there was less than a month to go before the Iowa caucuses, in which DeSantis would finish a distant second to Trump. But he did finish ahead of Haley.
Along with Trump’s super PAC, Haley’s spent $47.6 million in negative ads against DeSantis—almost double what was spent against Haley and Trump combined from super PACs, according to campaign finance analyst Rob Pyers.
Of the money expended on attack ads against Haley, $9.7 million was spent by the newly formed Fight Right from mid-November until the January 15 caucus. Another $5 million was spent against her by Never Back Down as it handed off the attack ads to Fight Right.
In that time, Haley’s favorability rating in Iowa dropped from 59 percent to 48 percent and her unfavorable ratings increased from 29 percent to 46 percent, according to the Des Moines Register poll. The combined effect of the ads was to push Haley’s net favorable rating down by 28 points.
Wagner said they could have done more against Haley if Never Back Down had spent earlier and more heavily. He compared Roe to a character in The Godfather who lost his nerve in a moment of crisis.
“These people talk tough and act like the Godfather,” he said, “but when the chips were down and the live bullets were flying, they turned out to be Fredo fumbling the gun. At a time when we needed trigger men, we got a bunch of nervous data geeks.”
Roe’s defenders point out that he was never known as a softie and once was accused in 2015 by a Trump spokesperson of being complicit in the suicide of a Missouri politician. (Roe denied culpability.)
Even Roe’s critics point out that the Iowa operation his staff built overperformed expectations for DeSantis, who probably would not have finished second without Never Back Down’s ground game.
Staffers in Iowa were blissfully unaware of much of the drama consuming the upper echelons of the outfit.
“We did our jobs,” said one.
A week after the caucus, NBC News reported on some of the troubles at Never Back Down and featured a photograph of Wagner working on a staff jigsaw puzzle in the Iowa office. It quoted two anonymous staffers who said Wagner spent hours working on the puzzle.
Wagner denied the accusation, as did a top consultant in the Iowa operation who was not affiliated with any of the rival camps in the super PAC. The source said the photograph was taken by an Axiom employee and leaked to annoy Wagner.
Roe couldn’t resist getting a final dig in about Wagner: “I think it’s obvious they’re better at puzzles than politics.”
The fighting within Never Back Down and the drama with the campaign underscored a fundamental problem DeSantis had in the presidential race: They didn’t spend enough time fighting Trump.
DeSantis couldn’t even make it to New Hampshire.
The pollster and strategist for Trump’s MAGA Inc. super PAC, Tony Fabrizio, laughed it off: “Never has so much been spent by so many with so little results as Never Back Down.”