LaTomah Hauff stopped at the red-draped table on her way into Dean’s Classic Car Museum to jot her contact information on a sign-up sheet to hear more about Ron DeSantis.
The 75-year-old retired speech pathologist had driven an hour to hear the Florida governor speak in northwest Iowa last Saturday. She was one of more than 600 Iowa Republicans who filed into the exhibit hall and past the display’s brochures about DeSantis and cards to sign pledging support for him in next year’s Republican presidential caucuses.
The display, with all the earmarks of a presidential campaign, was the work of Never Back Down, a super political action committee promoting DeSantis while he moves toward a 2024 bid.
It was also an early glimpse of how this group — able to receive unlimited sums from wealthy donors, unlike a presidential campaign — plans to build a network of supporters necessary to compete in the caucuses.
Essentially, it’s a caucus campaign that, for legal reasons, cannot attach itself explicitly to a candidate.
The novel approach, aimed at maximizing super PAC dollars, underscores the stakes in Iowa for DeSantis. He needs to show early that he is a viable threat to former President Donald Trump, whose team says it has already signed up thousands of Iowa volunteers and supporters before DeSantis has even declared his candidacy.
The effort comes with thorny challenges. The super PAC must essentially build a separate grassroots network to finagle commitments from Iowans to support DeSantis without coordinating with him.
In an office in Des Moines’ western suburbs, Republican operatives had by mid-May conducted three five-day training sessions for classes of paid organizers, with three more scheduled for June. By early May, the group had hired more than a half-dozen seasoned political strategists and recruited volunteers from veteran statewide organizers, including former senior aides to Gov. Kim Reynolds and former Gov. Terry Branstad.
As of early May, the teams had canvassed at least 1,000 addresses, and planned to double that by Sunday.
The goal is to secure commitments to back DeSantis at the caucuses, which are expected to lead off the 2024 Republican voting season, in all of the 1,670 precincts where the party plans to hold them next year.
Officials plan to make the Des Moines-area headquarters the training hub for more than 30 organizers the super PAC plans to hire and dispatch to the four early-contest states and more than a dozen others expected to hold their contests by next March 5, so-called Super Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the super PAC declined to suggest a budget for the Iowa operation. But Never Back Down has raised more than $30 million, and DeSantis has more than $80 million in his gubernatorial campaign account that is expected to be transferred into the super PAC.
Advisers for Never Back Down are betting the money is better spent on staff, door-knocking and phone-banking than advertising.
Even with its big budget and a potential army of staff canvassing Iowa, an organizing campaign without the candidate is at a disadvantage, said veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
Murphy led a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC’s effort to promote the former Florida governor’s campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. With a $100 million budget, Right to Rise emphasized messaging via advertising and direct mail.
But Bush fell from his perch as the field’s early favorite, due in part to his failure to ignite enthusiasm and recognize Trump’s viability.
A super PACs’ strengths lies in echoing a candidate’s messages or attacking opponents. Persuading voters to commit to attending caucuses almost necessarily requires the presence of the candidate, Murphy said.
“If you don’t have the candidate — or a strong surrogate, like a spouse — to do the tour and meet people in a state with a culture of candidate interaction, it’s hard to have a big organic impact, and that’s what they are going to run into,” Murphy said.
If last Saturday was any preview, the super PAC seemed ready to shadow DeSantis, with all the trappings of a local, organizing campaign, including “DeSantis ’24” yard signs.