Hours before the Republican Party’s first presidential debate, the chief strategist for the super PAC that has effectively taken over Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign met with donors in Milwaukee.
“Now let me tell you a secret — don’t leak this,” the strategist, Jeff Roe, told the donors last Wednesday, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by The New York Times. “We need to do this now. We’re making a move now.”
Then Mr. Roe made a bold sales pitch: “The day after Labor Day we’re launching and we need your help to stay up and go hard the rest of the way. We need 50 million bucks.”
With urgency in his voice, Mr. Roe told the donors he required much of the $50 million in the next month before the second G.O.P. debate on Sept. 27. He said he needed $5 million a month just to sustain his Iowa operations. And he said Mr. DeSantis needed to beat Donald J. Trump in “the next 60 days” and separate from all of his other rivals “now.”
The audio revealed that the people running the DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, are placing big bets now in the hope that donors will cover them later. And it underscored just how steep a task the group confronts as it heads into the fall with its candidate far behind Mr. Trump in the polls, a campaign that is low on cash and a growing recognition that a Trump victory in Iowa could accelerate the end of the Republican race.
In his meeting with the donors — a portion of which was reported on earlier Thursday by CNN — Mr. Roe made a cutting assessment of much of the Republican field competing against Mr. DeSantis, the Florida governor.
Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, Mr. Roe said, was deemed nice by voters but not seen as presidential. Nikki Haley, he added, was “not actually a lovely person” and also viewed as unpresidential. He mocked former Vice President Mike Pence for combating a fly that landed on his head during his only debate with his ultimate successor, Kamala Harris, in 2020. And he said that Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the nomination by a wide margin, was certain to lose the general election and drag down other Republicans on the ballot.
While Mr. Roe predicted multiple paths to victory ahead of Super Tuesday in early March, it was his plaintive warnings about when the race would be “moving” that made clear he sees Mr. DeSantis’s chances as resting on winning Iowa.
In addition to being the top strategist for Never Back Down, Mr. Roe runs Axiom Strategies, the highest-grossing consulting firm in Republican politics. He is comfortable with asking candidates and their donors to part with large sums of cash, and made light of doing so at the meeting.
“Now the good news is that we have all the money we need in this room,” Mr. Roe told the donors. “The bad news is it’s still in your wallet.”
Even so, his request for a quick $50 million was an audacious ask given that Never Back Down has already taken $82.5 million out of Mr. DeSantis’s state political committee, raised an additional nearly $50 million and spent nearly $34 million through the end of June, according to federal filings.
There are clear signs the super PAC is shifting its spending: It is ending its highly promoted door-knocking program to sway voters in Nevada, one of the early states, as well as in some Super Tuesday states, a development first reported by NBC News on Thursday.
Mr. Roe leaned heavily on the donors to give more money and quickly — telling them he would meet them in the T.S.A. line at the airport to collect their checks.
“This doesn’t run on, you know, fumes,” Mr. Roe told the donors. “And so we’re going to go spend this money right now, betting that our donors won’t let us down. And I’ve been let down by donors a lot. And I’ve already lost once to Trump and we can’t do it again.”
That loss happened in 2016, when Mr. Roe ran the presidential primary campaign of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who came closer than any other candidate to toppling Mr. Trump.
For his 2024 rematch against Mr. Trump, Mr. Roe and his colleagues at Never Back Down are trying something that has never been done before at this scale in American politics: They are running almost every aspect of the DeSantis presidential effort out of a group that is barred by campaign finance laws from coordinating strategy with either Mr. DeSantis or his campaign team.
Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited sums but because of the prohibition against coordination they are usually used as a piggy bank to buy advertising. Everything else that’s part of a modern presidential campaign — from events, to bus tours, to the labor intensive business of calling voters and knocking on their doors — is usually handled by the campaign. But because the DeSantis campaign has relatively little cash and the super PAC has had plenty, Never Back Down has taken over all of those functions.
The unusual arrangement has necessitated an awkward tap dance around campaign finance laws. Mr. DeSantis insists he is technically separate from this super PAC even as he travels around on a bus funded by the super PAC and even as he attends his own events as a “special guest” of the super PAC.
In July, Mr. DeSantis laid off more than a third of his campaign staff. Donors had slowed giving as he slid in the polls and as his first campaign manager, Generra Peck, spent early and aggressively. The campaign’s cash crunch has meant that the health of Never Back Down is more important to Mr. DeSantis’s fortunes than the structure of his own campaign.
Officials with Never Back Down and the DeSantis campaign declined to comment.
In the presentation to donors last Wednesday, Mr. Roe described several data points about how the super PAC has helped collect commitments from caucusgoers in Iowa to support Mr. DeSantis on Jan. 15.
While Mr. Roe trashed most public polling, he suggested that the Des Moines Register poll this month showing Mr. Trump at 42 percent and Mr. DeSantis at 19 percent was “right along the path where our numbers show.”
Then, he said, there was a drop-off to a lower tier of candidates.
“Tim Scott is a wonderful human being, a nice man. He’s a moderate, a squish, but he’s a nice guy. He doesn’t have a name I.D. problem. He has a not-being-viewed-presidential problem,” Mr. Roe said.
A spokesman for the Scott campaign, Matt Gorman, declined to comment.
“Nikki Haley is not actually a lovely person,” Mr. Roe continued in the recording, adding that she has higher name identification. Still, he said, she has a “not-being-viewed-presidential problem.”
A spokeswoman for the Haley campaign, Chaney Denton, responded by email, writing, “Lol, if anyone ever thought that, her debate performance put it to rest.”
As the donors prepared to watch the first debate, Mr. Roe forecast who might attack Mr. DeSantis or anyone else. To watch “Mike Pence attack somebody, that’d be kind of weird,” he said, adding, “He might get his fly out to kind of help him.”
A spokesman for Mr. Pence did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Mr. Roe said that Mr. Trump, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, had a lower ceiling of support than the 42 percent backing him in the Des Moines Register poll. He claimed the real number was 37 percent and that Mr. DeSantis still needed to chase that core Trump bloc for its votes. He said that an additional 37 percent liked Mr. Trump but wanted to move on from him.
“We want to show them we’re a better option — never back down, give it to the elite, like be who we are,” he said in the recording. “But the 37 percent that like Trump but want someone new, we’ve got to give them what they want, and that’s policies. Show them what the governor has done. These folks — we’ve got to get them what they need, which is common sense, which is durability and stability and a leader, vision, optics, family, Casey.”
His mention of Mr. DeSantis’s wife, Casey, recalls a strategy memo that Mr. Roe wrote ahead of the debate in which he implored the candidate to “invoke a personal anecdote story about family, kids, Casey, showing emotion.” The memo was posted on the website of Mr. Roe’s firm to get around laws restricting how super PACs and candidates can coordinate. A person not affiliated with the DeSantis operation alerted The New York Times to its existence. Mr. DeSantis was furious about the memo, according to people with knowledge of his reaction.
In the presentation to donors last Wednesday, Mr. Roe described Mr. Trump as a surefire loser who cannot win the four states he said the race would come down to.
“It’s Arizona, and it’s Georgia and it’s Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And we have Senate races there that cannot overcome him on the ballot,” Mr. Roe said, though he later clarified that there was no Senate race in Georgia, according to a person familiar with the comments. “We’re going to lose them. This is not in dispute. We have to beat him and we’ve got to beat him in the next 60 days and we’ve got to beat everybody else nipping at our heels. Now. And we’ve got to separate further — now.”