DeSantis draft effort pushes ahead after campaign finance watchdog deadlocks – POLITICO

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Elections
The group is seeking to build a list of supporters and then hand it over to a potential DeSantis campaign.
On Thursday, the FEC deadlocked on competing drafts of a response to Ready for Ron's request for advice on the legality of its plan. | John Shinkle/POLITICO
By Zach Montellaro

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A high-spending effort to draft Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis into the 2024 presidential race has promised to forge ahead with an unusual attempt to boost his would-be campaign, after the Federal Election Commission deadlocked on a request for guidance about whether the strategy was legal.
The group, Ready for Ron, is a federal PAC with the goal of building a list of up to 1 million people urging DeSantis to run for president. But along with those names, the group wants to deliver would-be supporters’ email addresses and phone numbers to DeSantis — a potential treasure trove of information for a presidential campaign.
Email and text lists that candidates can hit up for donations are cornerstones of modern political campaigns — and building them can be expensive and time-consuming. The FEC has historically maintained that candidates can rent or buy supporter lists compiled by other groups, but they can’t just accept something of such value as a gift without breaking campaign contribution limits.
But Ready for Ron argues that it is compiling a petition, not a mailing list, and the PAC should be able to freely share the information with DeSantis whenever it wants.
The group asked the Federal Election Commission if its plan to share its petition for free with DeSantis was permissible, either now, when DeSantis is not a federal candidate, or later if he takes more formal steps toward running for president, which is widely anticipated.
On Thursday, the FEC deadlocked on the request to provide advice to the group. The commission voted to reject a draft advisory opinion that would have explicitly blessed Ready for Ron’s plan to share the information with DeSantis for free before he took formal steps to consider a presidential run, but not after that point. But the committee split 3-3 along partisan lines on another draft advisory opinion that says the PAC cannot provide the names and contact information to DeSantis at any point, leaving the decision in some sort of limbo.
“We have moved the ball in the right direction,” Dan Backer, an attorney who is representing Ready for Ron, said in an interview after the hearing.
The FEC is likely to take another crack at some sort of advisory opinion, with commissioners directing staff to draft a response that merges the areas of commonality between the two drafts, seemingly in the post-”testing the water” phase, a somewhat legally nebulous phase when a potential candidate is considering a campaign and spending money to explore it but has not officially declared a run.
But Backer indicated the group will be aggressive, and didn’t rule out litigation should the commission try to throw up barriers. “I want the commission to tell me what exactly is ‘testing the waters,’ because my rights are not subject to an amorphous standard,” he said.
He also contended that because DeSantis has not entered that “testing the waters” phase yet, the group is free to share the petition — and contact information — with DeSantis whenever they wanted to, although they had no plans to do so imminently.
But already, that list is likely valuable on its own. Ready for Ron has collected around 43,750 signatures as of Wednesday morning, according to Backer, and is getting an additional 1,000 people to sign on every day, with the pace picking up. He said his “personal target” would be to hit 1 million signatures by the end of the year.
When reached for a comment, a spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign pointed to a memo from the campaign’s legal counsel that said “supporters of the governor should understand that contributions made to the PAC do not benefit Governor DeSantis or his re-election as Florida’s governor.” Fox News first reported on that memo in June.
Campaign finance watchdog groups that opposed Ready for Ron’s proposal, arguing that it would open the door even further to candidates skirting contribution limits, found a silver lining in Thursday’s deliberations, even with the deadlock. Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, said the commissioners seemed skeptical of Ready for Ron’s attempts to define their list as anything but a mailing list, which the FEC has already established as something that holds value and is subject to contribution limits.
“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” he said. “And the [regulations] specifically say this particular duck is an example of an in-kind contribution.”
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.
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