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DeSantis replaces campaign manager as he struggles to gain on Trump

Ron DeSantis is replacing his presidential campaign manager and making other changes to his senior staff after a rough stretch of layoffs, budget woes and struggles to make headway against former president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

James Uthmeier, DeSantis’s chief of staff in the Florida governor’s office, will replace Generra Peck, who oversaw DeSantis’s blowout reelection last fall but came under fire as the campaign shed more than a third of its staff amid a cash crunch. Allies have lamented what they call unforced errors — ranging from early overspending to sharing a meme video denounced as homophobic. And while some blame Trump’s indictments for rallying the GOP base to his side, others worry that DeSantis’s message is simply not potent enough or that he has gone too far to the right on social issues while trying to peel away Trump’s voters.

David Polyansky, previously an adviser to the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, will become deputy campaign manager, officials said, while Ryan Tyson — a senior adviser who also worked on DeSantis’s gubernatorial reelection — and Florida operative Marc Reichelderfer will take on elevated roles. Peck will become the campaign’s chief strategist. The changes, first reported by the Messenger, were confirmed by campaign officials, including spokesman Bryan Griffin.

These moves are the latest of many shake-ups for a candidate who began the year with sky-high expectations, widely considered Trump’s most formidable rival, but who has lost ground in national and statewide polling and trailed Trump by 37 points in one recent survey. An official launch in late May did not turn things around.

As the campaign cut staff in two rounds last month, advisers declared that the campaign was undergoing a “reset” that would involve reducing event and travel costs and leaning into an “underdog” mentality. Long disdainful of the mainstream media, DeSantis has started to engage more and to take every opportunity to make news, finally agreeing last week to the months-long request by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for a debate.

In bringing together officials from the campaign, the super PAC and the governor’s official office, the moves further blur some of the lines between different entities in DeSantis’s orbit. Advisers have assembled a novel structure that has drawn scrutiny and at times led to strategic disagreements. The new campaign team got a mixed reception from allies.

Some DeSantis allies welcomed the leadership changes Tuesday as a sign that the governor is taking more concrete steps to change course as the first GOP presidential debate — a crucial moment for the governor — looms on Aug. 23. “James Uthmeier is ruthless,” said Dan Eberhart, a DeSantis donor. “This will change the campaign’s trajectory.”

But others were skeptical that the staffing shifts could stanch the bleeding after weeks of attempts at a “reboot.” Some DeSantis allies have long suggested that DeSantis needed to bring in more operatives experienced in presidential campaigns — and in replacing Peck with Uthmeier, DeSantis is elevating another loyal aide from his insular circle rather than a veteran of presidential politics.

One DeSantis fundraiser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, was skeptical that Uthmeier is the best choice given his lack of campaign experience.

“I think this is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said the fundraiser, who still hopes DeSantis pulls through. The person argued that DeSantis’s team grew overconfident after his landslide reelection and said fundraising has gotten harder in recent weeks. “My normal contacts, there’s no excitement — not like four or five months ago, that’s for sure.”

Adding to the campaign’s financial pressures, the Federal Election Commission sent a letter to the DeSantis campaign this week that suggests he might have significantly less money available to use in the primary than was evident in his most recent campaign finance report, because of the classification of some donations.

Polyansky’s hire adds significant campaign experience to the operation’s upper ranks. A former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Polyansky has held senior roles with several presidential campaigns, including Cruz’s 2016 bid. He is also experienced in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state that DeSantis’s team is focusing on as key to creating early-state momentum and breaking Trump’s grip.

Polyansky’s move also further links the campaign and the super PAC, which has played an unusually large role in the governor’s 2024 bid even as it is legally forbidden from coordinating with the campaign. Polyansky has worked extensively with Jeff Roe, who was Cruz’s campaign manager and is now the top strategist at Never Back Down.

Never Back Down has recently been hosting more of DeSantis’s events as the campaign strains to save money. And from the start of the race, the group — which unlike a campaign can collect unlimited donations — has taken over functions traditionally handled by campaigns, such as field organizing.

The Washington Post reported last week that the super PAC has even become a joint investor with the campaign in a private transportation company in an unusual arrangement that lowers the cost of airplane leases for DeSantis, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Officials from the campaign and super PAC have questioned the other’s strategy, according to people familiar with the conversations, underscoring the challenges of having so much of DeSantis’s effort outsourced to a group that cannot coordinate with the campaign.

Uthmeier joined the governor’s office in 2019 as deputy general counsel and became chief of staff in October 2021. Before that, he worked as a lawyer in Washington and served in the Trump administration as an adviser to Wilbur Ross, who served as commerce secretary.

Many staffers and allies thought Peck’s job to be safe despite the turmoil and emphasized that she had built trust with DeSantis and his wife, Casey DeSantis, who wields major influence in the campaign. When DeSantis won reelection last fall by nearly 20 points, he thanked two people by name in his victory speech: Casey DeSantis and Peck.

But some donors and allies pushed for a change at the top as the campaign’s troubles deepened this summer. The governor recently asked Uthmeier, who had already been helping the campaign fundraise, to assess the operation’s problems, officials said.

“James Uthmeier has been one of Governor DeSantis’ top advisers for years and he is needed where it matters most: working hand in hand with Generra Peck and the rest of the team to put the governor in the best possible position to win this primary and defeat Joe Biden,” the campaign’s communications director, Andrew Romeo, said in a statement that also called Polyansky “a critical addition to the team given his presidential campaign experience in Iowa and work at Never Back Down.”

Digital director Ethan Eilon also recently became deputy campaign manager.

Alex Kelly, Florida’s commerce secretary, will replace Uthmeier in the governor’s office — but only as acting chief of staff, said spokesman Jeremy Redfern. Redfern said Kelly will work with senior adviser David Dewhirst while Uthmeier takes an unpaid “leave of absence.”

Nikki Fried, the Florida Democratic Party chair, early this summer filed complaints against Uthmeier and other staff at the governor’s office with the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Florida Elections Commission, citing concerns first reported by NBC News that governor’s office staff may have improperly solicited donations for DeSantis’s presidential campaign.

At the time, Redfern called those complaints politically motivated and said, “If the executive team wants to fundraise, knock doors or volunteer their free time, more power to them — they have First Amendment rights like every American.”

Marianne LeVine and Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Ethan Eilon has become deputy chief of staff for the DeSantis campaign. He is deputy campaign manager. The article has been corrected.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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