Tech and finance moguls are putting money and weight behind ‘Trump with a brain’ Ron DeSantis

September 8, 2022, 4:05 PM UTC
Gov. Ron DeSantis is fueling a shift in the business conversation.
Photo Illustration by Fortune; Original Photos by Jabin Botsford—The Washington Post/Getty Images; Getty Images

It was early afternoon in late July, and Carson Jorgensen was waiting in a decadent restaurant at the St. Regis hotel in Park City, Utah, along with a group of donors and business leaders, for the guest of honor to arrive. 

Right on time, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida whose star has risen rapidly over the past couple of years, appeared and efficiently worked through a photo line, before addressing the room over salads and chicken at lunch in the hotel’s RIME restaurant. With the majestic Rocky Mountains in the background, the group had assembled for the second of a pair of fundraising events for DeSantis in Utah in late July, raising money for his 2022 gubernatorial reelection campaign. Jorgensen, who serves as chair of the Utah Republican Party, recounts that the event was composed of some “upper-class donors” in “dressed-up casual” attire, as it was a “more expensive fundraiser,” he estimated (tickets to the lunch event reportedly went for $5,000 a pop). DeSantis spoke for about half an hour, Jorgensen remembers, touching on topics such as pushing back against supposedly “woke” corporations such as Disney, and how he opened up the economy in Florida during the pandemic. 

It’s DeSantis’s unabashed pro-business, anti–political correctness stances, combined with just enough of former President Donald Trump’s pugnaciousness, that have earned him admiration among some of Florida’s increasingly powerful tech and finance set, some of whom wager he could ride the wave all the way to the White House in 2024.

The governor has amassed a wealthy crowd of donors in recent years: His supporters include billionaires like hedge fund Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin, hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, packaging materials tycoon Richard Uihlein, and Home Depot cofounder and former CEO Bernie Marcus, who have all donated to DeSantis’s political action committee Friends of Ron DeSantis within the past two years. DeSantis’s new largest donor is hotel mogul and aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who chipped in a whopping $10 million in July. All told, DeSantis has raised a hefty $172 million as of Aug. 19, per OpenSecrets, a group that tracks political contributions. And though the Utah fundraiser was hosted to solely support DeSantis’s reelection campaign in Florida, attendees discussed his potential 2024 presidential aspirations, recalls Jorgensen. “He’s done a lot of things right,” Citadel CEO Griffin said of DeSantis onstage at the Milken Institute Global Conference in May, also noting that “he is unquestionably one of the forerunners in the Republican primary today.” Griffin has been a top DeSantis donor, giving $5 million to the governor in 2021. 

Though DeSantis hasn’t announced plans to run for president yet, he’s emerged as the principal challenger to Trump, who’s heavily teased a potential 2024 bid. Most recent polls show Trump with a sizable lead over DeSantis (the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted between Aug. 19 and Aug. 21 showed Trump with a 39-point lead over DeSantis, the second-highest-ranking candidate), though DeSantis handily beats others in the hypothetical running. 

But while DeSantis himself has developed a reputation for sparring with the press and issuing forceful and controversial opinions on everything from transgender athletes to his dislike of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, his biggest backers are largely keeping mum about whether they think he’ll mount a run in 2024—or if they’d support him. Fortune reached out to more than a dozen of these (in fairness, sometimes tight-lipped billionaires) about DeSantis and they either didn’t return requests for comment or declined to speak on the record; DeSantis’s campaign also didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. 

It will be some time before DeSantis would hypothetically announce a 2024 bid—he’s still zeroed in on the 2022 gubernatorial race in Florida. And without any candidates having yet thrown their hat in the ring for the 2024 presidential race, there are plenty of unknowns. But it’s clear that whether or not DeSantis would be among them, the Florida governor has garnered powerful and fervent backing from some of the biggest finance and tech players—not only in Florida, but in other parts of the country as well—for his immoderate, and often Trumpian, stances on controversial issues. Through his actions and words, he’s fueling that set of business leaders who think ESG investing is a joke; who don’t believe companies should be weighing in on social issues, or what DeSantis considers anti-“wokeness”; and those who believe the economy should be a top, if not the top, priority. 

Whatever happens in 2024, DeSantis is influencing the conversation leading up to that race. 

Support in the Miami business scene

Despite his tendency to take on the Establishment, DeSantis himself boasts a classic Ivy League résumé. He spent much of his childhood in Dunedin, Fla., where he played Little League baseball, then attended college at Yale University, where he was captain of the varsity baseball team. After graduating he went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. 

Prior to politics, DeSantis served in the U.S. Navy as a legal adviser, and following active duty, as a federal prosecutor. In his earlier political career, he was a congressman for Florida from 2013 until 2018. He registered further on the national radar when former President Trump endorsed him for governor in the 2018 election, a decision Trump reportedly made after seeing DeSantis speak on Fox News. 

But it wasn’t really until the pandemic that DeSantis’s star began to rise: With the surge of Silicon Valley and Wall Street transplants flocking to Florida in search of zero state income tax and an “open” state during lockdowns, he capitalized on the attention for eschewing public health guidelines and mandates regarding COVID-19 to focus on keeping businesses open during the early days of the pandemic. His controversial COVID stance has been a selling point for some in the business milieu, including some who spoke with Fortune, who perceive him as being particularly pro-business. 

More recently, DeSantis has drawn scrutiny for some of his controversial policies, including the highly criticized bill prohibiting public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with students in kindergarten through third grade, dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. He has also taken a harder stance on abortion, recently suspending a Tampa-area elected state attorney who promised not to enforce the state’s new abortion law following the overturning of Roe v. Wade

Some of the business and entrepreneurial crowd who moved to the state over the past couple of years praise the way DeSantis has governed. One such transplant, Bryan Goldberg, founder and CEO of Bustle Digital Group (BDG), which operates media sites including Bustle, W Magazine, and Gawker, moved to Florida during the pandemic, and thinks DeSantis’s track record of prioritizing businesses staying open over public health mandates makes him appealing: “He’s a person who put the economy first,” Goldberg recently told Fortune. He argues that after the past couple of years, “it’s not just Florida—national sentiment has swung favorably toward DeSantis’s performance as governor.” But as to beyond 2022, “that’s a different question,” Goldberg says. (Goldberg donated $1,000 to DeSantis’s reelection campaign in July, per DeSantis’s PAC records.) 

DeSantis’s agenda against what he considers “wokeness” resonates with entrepreneurs like Goldberg: “I think businesses need to stay out of politics. That’s the lesson from the Disney debacle: CEOs are not elected officials,” he told Fortune. In recent years, CEOs have sent press releases and communications to employees about various “social and political issues,” as Goldberg puts it. “That’s wrong. That’s bad. CEOs have one job, and that job is to run their company effectively,” he argues. (When asked about that stance regarding issues that affect employees, like abortion and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Goldberg said he was not “talking about any particular issue.”) 

Others, like Citadel CEO Griffin, think DeSantis went too far in picking a fight with Disney. DeSantis went after the entertainment titan’s status as a special tax district following the company’s criticism of DeSantis’s Parental Rights in Education law or, colloquially, the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and Griffin believed the move could look like “retaliation” from DeSantis. 

Notwithstanding some of DeSantis’s stances, like targeting Big Tech, which he has attacked over what he calls social media censorship, Florida has become a hotspot for Silicon Valley and Wall Street expats seeking a more business-friendly state to set up shop. Large companies from financial titan Citadel to Elliott Management Corp. have moved their headquarters to Florida in the past couple of years, alongside asset management firm ARK Investment Management, run by infamous investor Cathie Wood (Wood has historically been a Trump supporter, but declined to comment to Fortune regarding her thoughts on candidates for the next election). 

DeSantis has, however, taken aim at the investment management industry—specifically deriding ESG-focused investing, which takes into account environmental, social, and governance factors, in a ban for State Board of Administration (SBA) fund managers to consider ESG when investing. But those like longtime venture investor and PayPal mafia alum Keith Rabois of VC firm Founders Fund, who’s based in Miami, aren’t put off: “ESG investing is a fraud,” he opined to Fortune, so “if politicians want to reflect our views, we’re certainly not going to be opposed to that.” 

The Florida governor “gives off this vibe that this is a great place to build a business. That is the main thing that I think people are excited about,” Edward Lando, managing partner at early-stage investment and incubation firm Pareto Holdings, based in Miami, told Fortune (Though he lives in Florida, Lando is a French citizen and isn’t eligible to vote in the U.S.). Among his circles, Lando says there’s chatter about DeSantis, and he contends “it’s much less controversial to say that you think DeSantis is an interesting candidate” than Trump.

Venture investor and outspoken conservative Rabois is, like others, still hedging: “Obviously, everybody’s just waiting to see who runs. There’s no reason to make a decision until you know who the candidates are,” he said. However Rabois said he’d be “excited” about either DeSantis, Florida Senators Marco Rubio or Rick Scott, or Miami Mayor Francis Suarez as the next president, arguing any of those “would have a lot of support across the board from tech and business community leaders in Florida.” Outside the state, he singled out former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton as “top-tier candidates,” though he isn’t sure if they’d run, and declared, “I don’t think many business leaders that I know are interested in supporting Trump.” 

The biggest policies Rabois is focused on moving forward include U.S. competition with China; small-business and education recovery from the pandemic; and the “anti-tax and anti-regulation base of Florida” that “promotes” business and “successful jobs,” he says. They’re among a “portfolio of issues” he argues DeSantis can use to contrast himself with others. But among his VC and startup circles, Rabois admits, “We don’t talk about this stuff. I’m too busy.”

Beyond homegrown Floridians, “Silicon Valley and the tech community did not have a high opinion of President Trump. I don’t expect that to change in the future, nor do I expect the Miami tech scene to receive him much more warmly,” argues BDG’s Goldberg. The stream of tech and finance transplants into Florida has brought with it a crowd who, according to Goldberg, would “consider both parties,” though he believes most Floridians and the tech crowd will favor DeSantis. Issues like abortion rights are important to the tech group, Goldberg suggests, where DeSantis would likely have to tread a careful line: “Of the hundreds of thousands who have journeyed to Florida to start a new life, they’re not coming here in hopes of finding fewer rights,” he suggests.

But clearly, “it’s one thing to run a state—it’s another thing to run a country,” notes Eric Levine, a longtime GOP fundraiser and attorney. “A lot of people would want to know more about his economic vision.” 

Looking ahead to 2024 

Despite the support the governor has garnered from big-time donors, one possible reason for the general silence on 2024 rumors is the upcoming midterm elections this fall—where Republicans hope to take control of the Senate and the House. Levine, the GOP fundraiser and attorney, argues “it’s hard to know whether or not people are not coming out because they don’t want to cross Trump, or whether or not, like myself, [they] want to stay focused on the midterm elections.” Indeed, numerous reports suggest members of the Republican Party are concerned about Trump announcing a 2024 bid before November, though Trump is now reportedly considering waiting until after the elections. 

But regardless if donors are saying it out loud yet, in terms of the zeitgeist, media attention, and polling, DeSantis has emerged as the key candidate to battle it out with Trump for the next election. “I think part of the reason why DeSantis’s name comes up [for 2024] is everyone’s heard of him,” Levine told Fortune. “There’s a little bit of a flavor of the month because it’s name recognition at this point,” he suggests. “He’s fighting with Disney; he’s fighting with [White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony] Fauci; he’s fighting with [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom.”

But even in the face of Trump’s worldwide notoriety, Levine, for one, doesn’t believe media attention is enough to cut it. “You always have these front-runners—I mean, Hillary Clinton, what happened to her in 2008? Or Jeb Bush in [20]16? Who had higher name recognition and more money than Jeb Bush?” he argues. “There’s a difference between name recognition at the very beginning of the process, and at the end of the day, you know, who you’re going to vote for.” 

Certainly it’s not a two-person race just yet: Levine, for one, says he’s heard the names of Arkansas Sen. Cotton, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Governor of South Carolina Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott tossed around for 2024 (they’re polling far below DeSantis thus far). 

And even in spite of the investigation into Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection and the recent FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago as part of an investigation into alleged mishandling of classified documents, Trump’s popularity among Republicans is still undeniable—even if, by some polls, the percentage of Republicans who think he should run again has waned somewhat

Indeed, Trump’s former White House communications director and SkyBridge Capital founder Anthony Scaramucci, who has long been a vocal critic of DeSantis, told Fortune back in June that he didn’t think DeSantis stood a chance at beating Trump, arguing that Trump would end up “killing DeSantis,” Scaramucci opined at the time. Trump “is a jealous guy,” he argued. “He’ll damage him politically, metaphorically.” Scaramucci added that while Trump “may not actually become the Republican nominee…on the way to not becoming the Republican nominee, I think he’s gonna destroy DeSantis.”

Those like Utah Republican Party chair Jorgensen wager “if Trump runs, he’s got the grass-roots folks still.” He believes the “political” crowd see DeSantis as “everything you get from Trump without the mean tweets”—or, as the New Yorker noted in a recent profile, “Trump with a brain”—but argues Trump is “still a champion amongst the people.” Indeed, Trump proponents tout that he still has formidable grass-roots support. Trump’s Save America PAC (which is reportedly being probed by a federal grand jury regarding Jan. 6) had roughly $99 million in cash on hand at the end of July (though reports say that money can’t be used for a 2024 campaign, and Trump is already facing accusations that he’s broken campaign laws in raising money while waiting to announce a 2024 run). 

“You’re seeing a lot of people sit back and see what pans out, because I think there’s some people who want to support Trump that are a little leery of it,” Jorgensen theorizes. There are also “people who want to support DeSantis, but none of them dare stick their head out—because it’s a pretty dangerous place to be.” 

Back in Utah earlier this summer, as the attendees of the gubernatorial fundraiser mingled, the topic of the next presidential election was on the tip of tongues—but even at DeSantis’s own event, Jorgensen remembers some attendees bringing up another name in conversations about who they’d be interested in for 2024: Trump. 

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