Gov. Ron DeSantis and the political groups supporting him are on track to break national gubernatorial fundraising records. He’s raked in millions from big donors to pad his campaign fund and political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. And he’s significantly outraised his opponent, Democratic challenger Charlie Crist.
But Crist has outpaced DeSantis in one category: percentage of donations from small-dollar donors. These donors — who contribute less than $200 per election cycle and are often used to measure enthusiasm for a candidate — account for a larger share of contributions to Crist’s campaign than that of DeSantis.
“I’d vote for anyone running against Ron DeSantis,” said Eileen Donlan, a 75-year-old retired resident of Melbourne Beach who said she’s donated more this year, largely to Democratic candidates including Crist and U.S. Rep. Val Demings, than she has in the past due to the recent Supreme Court decision about abortion. “[DeSantis] is like Trump, only he’s smarter than Trump. I don’t want him to win anything.”
Of the nearly $30 million raised by DeSantis’ campaign through the end of August, about 21% came from small-dollar donors, compared to 30% of Crist’s $9 million, according to the Herald’s analysis of campaign contribution data collected by the Florida Division of Elections. But DeSantis has made gains with small-dollar donors since his 2018 campaign, in which they only accounted for about 13% of total contributions.
And DeSantis enjoys a massive overall lead in fundraising, particularly when taking into account his affiliated Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC, which has raised another $174 million since DeSantis took office. All told, DeSantis’ campaign and affiliated PAC have raked in almost 10 times what Crist’s campaign and an affiliated PAC, Friends of Charlie Crist, have raised so far.
Several donors who wrote smaller checks to DeSantis noted his decision to keep businesses open and welcome tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for their support, including Carol Bescript. Bescript, 66, lives in Orange Park near Jacksonville, but she said she has family in California and New Jersey who had more restrictions during the height of the pandemic.
“It was amazing the difference between how we’ve lived in Florida to where they are with all of the restrictions,” Bescript said. “[DeSantis] has been extremely successful in representing Floridians.”
When asked why she donated to DeSantis’ campaign, Kathleen O’Dell said she believes he’s remained “strong in his stand for our state,” while Crist strikes her as “flip floppy” given his change in party. (Crist was a Republican when he served as governor from 2007-11, an independent when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, and became a Democrat for a losing bid in the 2014 governor’s race against Rick Scott.)
“It’s his character,” the 73-year-old real estate broker in Destin said about her support for DeSantis. And as a former county commissioner herself, O’Dell said, “I know how important even small donations are.”
“Small donors have always been a kind of yellow brick road for candidates,” said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director of OpenSecrets, a nonprofit organization that tracks political donations. If a candidate can “spur a kind of money bomb from a massive number of people,” it could indicate that their message is resonating with their base.
Within Florida, areas near The Villages northwest of Orlando, and Jacksonville have been the biggest sources of small-dollar cash for DeSantis, while Crist has drawn more small-dollar support from areas near his home base of Pinellas County.
But both candidates have gotten sizable portions of their small-dollar support outside the borders of the Sunshine State.
That doesn’t always translate to electoral success for candidates, Krumholz said. “Their campaign may become nationalized, but if they haven’t spent sufficient time in the state, raising money and focusing on the voters who can actually cast a ballot on election day, they often come up short of the votes they need.”
Crist has gotten roughly half of his small-dollar cash from out of state, while DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential contender, has gotten 45% of his small-dollar haul outside Florida.
And as DeSantis’ national profile has increased, so has his role as Democratic boogeyman.
“He’s not the other guy,” said one of Crist’s donors, 75-year-old Janet Breskman. Breskman, who’s a staunch Democrat supporter from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, said she dislikes DeSantis because of his standoff with the Walt Disney Co., and she said she thinks he’s “just looking to get his name in the paper.” She also regularly contributes to candidates across the country to unseat as many Republicans as possible.
Democrats have historically been more successful at raising money from small-dollar donors since the introduction of their online fundraising platform, ActBlue, in 2004. The Republican equivalent wasn’t established until 2019.
But Donald Trump defied party fundraising norms with small-dollar donations accounting for about 47% of all contributions to his campaign in 2020, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.
Though Krumholz said DeSantis is “kind of in the Trump mold,” he’s bringing in much more money from big donors. Still, DeSantis has made gains with small-dollar donors compared to his last election, and may continue to do so as the election approaches.
“Some candidates are going to have their cake and eat it, too. They’ll do well with mega donors, and they’ll do well, with donors giving small amounts,” Krumholz said, counting DeSantis among these candidates. “One factor is that he’s obviously focused on pretty divisive social issues — gay rights, education reform — and that tends to trigger contributions from individual donors, again, large and small.”
Ellen Huber, 71, of Eustis in Central Florida, has been a longtime supporter of DeSantis. She said she views DeSantis as the quintessential “American man” based on his former military service and, in her opinion, demonstrated patriotism. This year, she’s spending more money donating to Republican candidates in Florida, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and she plans to continue if she has the funds.
“I know Democrats have cranked up their donations,” Huber said. “I want to make sure the candidates that I support can get their message out.”