The presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is laying off staff and trying to stem dropping poll numbers as it burns through cash, while at the same time spending more than most of his rivals on an expensive private plane and other travel costs.
The DeSantis campaign spent $1.5 million on travel over six weeks — about 20 percent of its total spending in the second quarter, and a higher amount than any other campaign except those of Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy during the quarter, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance disclosures. Other Republican candidates such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley have been flying commercial.
Not all of the DeSantis campaign’s travel spending was for private jet flights, and the precise amount is difficult to pinpoint from Federal Election Commission disclosures because the campaign made some payments identified for “travel” through an obscure Florida LLC called N2024D. That company — named in the style of an airplane tail number — received almost $500,000, making it the campaign’s fourth-largest vendor, trailing only a credit card processor, media buyer and direct mail provider.
The campaign also disclosed almost $100,000 to a company in Houston called Empyreal Jet, plus $31,000 to a company called Avion Aviation that shares the same address. Empyreal Jet’s fleet includes a plane whose coordinates correspond to DeSantis’s known movements on at least 15 days since the campaign began, according to flight-tracking data. The plane is a Gulfstream IV, a jet usually used for private business travel that seats up to 19 people.
“I am running a fully transparent campaign,” DeSantis said in a fundraising email Wednesday, “meaning you’re involved at every step, I keep you informed on where your every dollar goes, and I treat you like the member of my team that you are, NOT my personal piggy bank.”
A senior campaign official said the campaign will continue to adapt its travel and events practices.
“Ron DeSantis has never been the favorite or the darling of the establishment, and he has won because of it every time,” communications director Andrew Romeo said in a statement Friday. “He’s ready to prove the doubters wrong again and our campaign is prepared to execute on his vision for the Great American Comeback as we transition into the next phase of winning this primary and beating Joe Biden.”
Candidates often charter private planes to keep up with the demanding pace of campaign travel, but it comes at a cost — both in dollars and in image, opening them up to attacks of being insular or elitist. “I really am smart with how we spend,” Haley said in a Newsmax interview Tuesday. “We’re on a lot of JetBlue and Spirit airline flights. We stay in a lot of Garden Inns, but we’re going to make sure that every dollar that’s donated to us is put towards communicating with the people in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and across this country.”
Trump has his own Boeing 757, but it was under repair for at least a year after he left office, and he often flew on the private planes of others. He grew antsy for his plane to be fixed, particularly after a small jet he was flying on from New Orleans to Palm Beach, Fla., had mechanical issues over the Gulf of Mexico and was forced to return to New Orleans. Trump’s plane, nicknamed Trump Force One, is now prominently featured as the backdrop for many of his rallies. The Trump campaign paid almost $500,000 to a Trump Organization-related entity for use of the plane in the second quarter.
Trump’s campaign is spending more on travel than DeSantis’s in absolute terms, as is the campaign of Ramaswamy. The former biotech executive is mostly self-funding his campaign, with more than $15 million in loans.
DeSantis has come under scrutiny because of his reliance on donors to provide private planes, sometimes from those with business before his administration. Former aides said that DeSantis almost never flew commercial, and that his team was responsible for finding private jets to ferry him to events inside and outside of Florida throughout his time as governor. His team in the past had kept a list of donors who were willing to regularly let DeSantis use their planes, and among the most prominent was Mori Hosseini, whose plane has been used by DeSantis and his wife on at least 12 occasions.
Hosseini also outfitted the governor’s mansion with a golf simulator for DeSantis’s use. Hosseini is one of the state’s major home builders, and last year the DeSantis administration approved $92 million to fast-track a highway interchange serving one of Hosseini’s housing developments.
“I can’t remember a single time he took a commercial flight,” said one former DeSantis adviser who was with him for several years, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
With the formal start of the campaign, DeSantis has been using the Gulfstream IV chartered from Empyreal. The company declined to comment. DeSantis announced his campaign in late May.
The reported payments to Empyreal and Avion — totaling about $130,000 — may not cover the full operating costs of DeSantis’s private flights, based on market rates for a Gulfstream IV available from Air Charter Advisors. That suggests at least some of the almost $500,000 paid to N2024D, the Florida LLC, could also be covering jet costs.
N2024D was set up in May by a campaign compliance firm, which did not respond to a request for comment. The name corresponds to a potential plane registration number, which would allow for a plane to fly with a tail labeled “2024D.”
The plane that DeSantis is using now is flying under a different tail number, but 2024D was registered with the Federal Aviation Administration last year and renewed in February by Scott Wagner, a college friend, donor and appointee of DeSantis’s. Wagner said the number is not currently in use and denied registering it at anyone’s request.
“It’s for a future possible tail number on an aircraft,” he said. “I don’t have any information that it’s going to be a campaign plane.”
The campaign eliminated fewer than 10 staffers last week out of a roughly 90-person payroll. The campaign raised $20 million in the second quarter — second only to Trump’s combined committees in the Republican field — but only 15 percent came from small donors who could consistently give again, and about $3 million was earmarked for the general election and will remain off-limits unless DeSantis wins the nomination.
The campaign is gathering top donors in Utah this weekend. DeSantis has slid in early primary polls against Trump, and misgivings over strategy have become public. The campaign offered glimpses of a shift this week by granting an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, DeSantis’s first sit-down with a mainstream journalist as a presidential candidate. He also took press questions in South Carolina and released a new policy proposal to eliminate diversity training in the military and revoke Biden’s executive order allowing transgender service members.