Chief strategist for pro-DeSantis super PAC resigns in latest high-profile departure

Jeff Roe, campaign manager for Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks during a Bloomberg Politics interview in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. Cruz's campaign had $19 million in the bank as of Dec. 31, Roe told reporters on Friday at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast briefing.

Jeff Roe in 2016.Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg/Getty ImagesCNN — 

Jeff Roe, the top adviser to the super PAC supporting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid, resigned Saturday night “effective immediately,” another high-profile departure within the organization at a critical moment in the nominating calendar.

The exit of Roe, a veteran Republican operative, comes as DeSantis loyalists have seized control of the governor’s embattled political operation in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Roe announced his resignation on social media Saturday within hours of the Washington Post publishing an account of the turmoil within Never Back Down. In the story, Never Back Down chairman and interim CEO Scott Wagner was quoted attributing recent departures of some of Roe’s top lieutenants to “numerous unauthorized leaks containing false information.” Wagner later revised his statement after a lawyer for the employees claimed his assertions were categorically false, according to the Post. Both statements were included in the story.

Roe said on X that he “cannot in good conscience stay affiliated” with the super PAC, “given the statements in the Washington Post.”

It is unclear the extent of Never Back Down’s role going forward after a wave of departures, including the exit of its CEO and its board chairman, Adam Laxalt, a former Nevada attorney general and one of DeSantis’ oldest friends in politics. Earlier this month, on the day DeSantis reached his goal of visiting all 99 Iowa counties, the super PAC dismissed three senior officials close to Roe in a move that confounded many people working there.

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Even as DeSantis loyalists have marginalized the super PAC, his campaign has expressed confidence in the Iowa ground operation built by Never Back Down. Notably, one of the architects of that effort, Kristin Davison, was among those let go from the super PAC.

DeSantis and his wife, Casey DeSantis, continue to attend events hosted by Never Back Down, but Fight Right, another super PAC started by several DeSantis allies close to his Tallahassee operation, has taken a leading role in the campaign air wars and is now running advertisements critical of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

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“We have full confidence in the NBD ground game and field operation, which is second to none,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement. “There is a stellar team in place and we appreciate their independent efforts to fight for Ron DeSantis.”

Never Back Down did not immediately responded to a request for comment.

DeSantis enters the final month before the January 15 Iowa caucuses trailing the front-runner, former president Donald Trump, who has needled the palace intrigue within the Florida governor’s political operation at every opportunity. Amid the regular turnover and resets in DeSantis’ world, Haley has gained traction in the early nominating states and is now threatening to become the top Republican alternative to Trump in the race.

The implosion of Never Back Down has quickly become a cautionary tale against turning over the machinery of political operation to an outside organization that cannot legally coordinate with a campaign.

Never Back Down was christened by DeSantis allies in the spring and tasked with carrying out many functions typically reserved for campaigns, including recruiting and training staff and volunteers; building a get-out-the-vote operation; advertising; and planning and hosting the candidate’s schedule. The unusual arrangement, criticized by campaign finance watchdogs, was seeded with more $80 million left over from a state political committee that previously supported DeSantis’ Florida campaigns.

DeSantis was first introduced to Roe, the founder of consulting firm Axiom Strategies, while serving in the House of Representatives, according to a source with knowledge of their introduction. There, he served as a member of the House Freedom Caucus who idolized the political stylings of Sen. Ted Cruz, one of Roe’s clients. Roe went on to run Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“DeSantis was always enamored by Jeff Roe,” the source said. “He won’t tell you that today.”

But by the time DeSantis was committed to a presidential run, he already had a team of close advisers he had come to trust — a difficult feat in a political circle that has often only included his wife. He declined to sideline that group after they helped steer him to a historic 19-point reelection victory last November.

Laxalt, a former client, encouraged DeSantis to bring Roe aboard, the source said. It not only brought presidential campaign experience to a team lacking seasoned operatives, but it also ensured Roe could not work for a potential rival, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Roe had guided Youngkin’s successful 2021 campaign.

Roe was instead given the reins of Never Back Down and its deep financial coffers, which continued to grow while money was slower to come into the campaign. That put more pressure on the super PAC. Never Back Down officials leaned into their unusual assignment, insisting their work would change the relationship between super PACs and presidential campaigns forever.

“We had 140 million bucks,” Roe said in an August closed-door meeting donors first reported by CNN. “We’re not going to waste it.”

But tension between the super PAC, based in Atlanta, and DeSantis’ Tallahassee campaign, mounted from the onset and it often seeped into the public. In one notable dustup from the summer, Roe published suggested talking points for DeSantis ahead of the first debate, drawing an irate response from the governor’s team.

By fall, Ron and Casey DeSantis began to question how Never Back Down was spending its money, particularly on advertisements going after Haley, CNN previously reported.

Some always saw the marriage between the distrusting DeSantises and Roe, a shrewd businessman in the lucrative world of political management, as destined to fail, just as many saw problems with outsourcing a campaign to a super PAC he could not coordinate with.

But for a time, it was believed Roe and DeSantis could coexist, if only because the race and the unusual arrangement they staked it on put both of their reputations on the line.

“If you talked to Jeff, he would tell you that he has accomplished everything there is to accomplish in politics except this: He hasn’t gotten a president,” the source on the Roe-DeSantis relationship told CNN prior to Roe’s departure. “It’s the only thing he has left to accomplish and that’s where their interests are aligned. People who say Jeff doesn’t care don’t realize they both want the same thing very, very badly.”

“Does he care about Ron DeSantis on a personal level? Probably not,” they added. “But he cares in terms of his own personal legacy.”

However, Roe’s exit had been anticipated since last week, when his lieutenants were dismissed and his role was further marginalized when another longtime DeSantis adviser, Phil Cox, was brought on to oversee operations at Never Back Down.

Roe in his social media post Saturday said he remained supportive of DeSantis’ White House bid.

“Governor DeSantis has been an exceptional governor and I hope he will be the 47th President of the United States. I wish the Governor, First Lady, and their entire team the best through the rest of the campaign,” Roe said.

This story has been updated with additional reaction.

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