June 9, 2023

The super PAC backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis today debuts its first TV ad, charging straight at former President Trump with the loaded question: “What happened to Donald Trump?”

Why it matters: The ad is the starting shot for a vicious fight between the top two contenders for the 2024 Republican nomination, even though DeSantis hasn’t formally entered the race.

  • A pro-Trump super PAC has been blasting DeSantis on the air for two weeks. Now, both sides are officially engaged.

“Trump cut and run like a coward,” Never Back Down said this weekend in an online-only blast targeted at attendees of this weekend’s National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis.

  • In the TV ad, the pro-DeSantis group says: “Donald Trump is being attacked by a Democrat prosecutor in New York. So why is he spending millions attacking the Republican governor of Florida? Trump’s stealing pages from the Biden-Pelosi playbook, repeating lies about Social Security.”
Screenshot: MAGA PAC

From the pro-Trump side, the first ad by the Make America Great Again super PAC flayed DeSantis on Social Security, a big issue for both the primary and the general election. The ad tied DeSantis to Republicans who’ve suggested cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

  • The ad began running on March 31, with $3 million in airtime during the first two weeks.

Trump allies think the Social Security issue undercuts the argument that DeSantis is more electable than the former president, who has vowed to protect the safety-net programs.

Screenshot: MAGA PAC

Pudding Fingers — a second ad by MAGA PAC that aired on Fox News, CNN, Newsmax and other cable outlets — needles DeSantis for a Daily Beast report last month that during a private plane trip in 2019, “DeSantis enjoyed a chocolate pudding dessert — by eating it with three of his fingers.”

  • The ad says DeSantis “has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements”: “Oh, and somebody get this man a spoon!”
  • DeSantis told Piers Morgan with a laugh: “I don’t remember ever doing that. I’m telling you — maybe when I was a kid.”

Context: Trump, who sees DeSantis as his biggest threat, holds a huge polling lead in the 2024 GOP presidential race. He got a massive fundraising bump after he was indicted in New York as many top conservatives rallied to him.

  • Trump’s campaign said this weekend he has raised more than $34 million this year. His total since his indictment on March 30 — $15.4 million — approached what he took in over the previous three months ($18.8 million in the first quarter), AP reports.

Both Trump and his super PAC — which operates separately from the campaign; no communication is allowed between the two — have accused DeSantis of waffling in the past on preserving Social Security.

  • The pro-DeSantis ad shows the governor saying in March: “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”
  • The ad shows CNBC’s Joe Kernen asking Trump at Davos in 2020: “Entitlements ever be on your plate?” Trump replies: “At some point, they will be… we will take a look at that.”
  • “Trump should fight Democrats, not lie about Governor DeSantis,” the ad says. “What happened to Donald Trump?”

Erin Perrine, communications director at Never Back Down, told Axios: “The ad is right: What happened to Donald Trump?”

Screenshot: Never Back Down super PAC

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung replied: “DeSantis is colluding with his globalist handlers to go full Never Trump in order to gaslight the people into thinking that Medicare and Social Security should be ripped away from hardworking Americans.”

  • “President Trump has made it clear that he will always stand on the side of Americans, and protect benefits seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives.”

Zoom out: Never Back Down got publicity over the weekend with a small online buy for “Gun-Grabbing Trump,” which was geotargeted to Indianapolis for the NRA convention.

  • The ad juxtaposes Trump’s comments about the Second Amendment with clips of Democrats: “TRUMP AGREED WITH NANCY PELOSI,” etc.
  • Trump’s super PAC retweeted a clip of House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) telling the NRA convention about Trump’s White House accomplishments.

🔮 What’s next: The anti-Trump TV ad will air once for now, on Fox’s Sunday show. On Monday, Never Back Down will put seven figures behind its first full national TV buy, “Anthem.”

  • That ad portrays DeSantis heroically standing up for everyday Americans. It doesn’t mention Trump.