Billionaire donors cool on Ron DeSantis over rightwing policies


Powerful Republican donors and billionaires Ken Griffin and Nelson Peltz are rethinking plans to support the US presidential bid of Ron DeSantis over concerns that the Florida governor has veered too far to the right.

They have been discouraged by DeSantis’s interventionist policies, people familiar with their thinking told the Financial Times. Griffin objects to a recent clampdown on teaching about gender and sexuality and DeSantis’s ongoing fight with Disney, while Peltz has taken issue with his stance on abortion, the people said.

DeSantis, 44, was widely seen as the candidate best positioned to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican party’s nomination for president. But recently he has slumped in the polls and there are increasing doubts about the strategy behind his 2024 White House bid. 

A retreat by donors such as Griffin and Peltz, hedge fund managers who are among the biggest taxpayers in Florida, could further harm the DeSantis campaign. The pair were expected to be among DeSantis’s biggest backers.* 

Griffin gave $5mn to DeSantis’s 2022 re-election effort and has been one of his most powerful and vocal proponents, previously praising his “tremendous record as governor of Florida”. But more recently the hedge fund manager had become unsettled by DeSantis’s policy initiatives that undermined individual rights and liberties, a person familiar with his thinking said.

Griffin declined to comment on specific candidates but told the FT: “As the presidential campaigns unfold, I am assessing how the policies of each candidate will strengthen our democracy.”

“I care deeply about individual rights and freedom, economic policies that encourage prosperity and upward mobility, children having access to a high-quality education, ensuring our communities are safe, and a strong national defence that secures the future of the United States and its allies,” he added. 

Peltz, founder of investment firm Trian Partners, lives in Palm Beach. He is also reconsidering his position. “Nelson Peltz thinks that most of DeSantis’s policies are acceptable, but his position on abortion is way too severe,” a person familiar with his thinking said. “That may undermine Peltz’s desire to financially support DeSantis as a candidate.” Peltz declined to comment.

A record 69 per cent of Americans support legal abortion during the first trimester of gestation, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The lack of vocal support from business figures once considered staunch supporters comes at a crucial time for DeSantis, who last week courted wealthy backers with a fundraiser in the affluent Hamptons district of Long Island. Neither Griffin nor Peltz have met with the Florida governor in months or provided any financial support since DeSantis announced his candidacy in May. 

The DeSantis campaign has so far relied heavily on deep-pocketed donors. Filings with the Federal Election Commission show just a sixth of the $20.1mn raised by DeSantis in the second quarter came from small donors. The candidate burnt through nearly $8mn in five weeks of campaigning.

In an effort to outflank Trump, DeSantis has veered sharply to the right on issues ranging from gay rights to abortion and immigration, a move that has started to alienate some key backers. In April he signed into law a six-week abortion ban in Florida, applying some of the nation’s strictest curbs to a state that acts as medical hub for the south-east US.

Griffin, founder of hedge fund Citadel and market maker Citadel Securities, announced last year that Citadel would relocate from Chicago to Miami, describing the city he had recently moved to with his family as a “growing metropolis that embodies the American dream”. Citadel will employ around 250 people in Miami by the end of the summer. 

The financier disagrees with DeSantis’s ongoing battle with Disney over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which restricts school teaching about gender and sexuality. The Florida governor has declared war on “woke Disney”, which is the state’s biggest employer and draws in millions of visitors a year to Orlando.

Griffin believes that DeSantis’s fight with the entertainment group “sends the wrong message about doing business in Florida”, a person familiar with his thinking said. “The governor needs to stay focused on creating good jobs.”

Peltz, who called off a proxy fight with the Disney board earlier in 2023, remains a significant shareholder in the entertainment group.

Earlier this year Thomas Peterffy, the billionaire founder of Interactive Brokers and a top Republican donor, cited the DeSantis position on abortion as one of his key reasons for halting plans to fund the campaign.

“I have put myself on hold,” he told the FT in April. “Because of his stance on abortion and book banning . . . myself, and a bunch of friends, are holding our powder dry.” 

DeSantis noted the concerns at an evangelical conference earlier this month, admitting his position had “lost a lot of really big supporters”. “We stood up. We did what was right,” DeSantis said, adding: “If I had a chance to do it again, I would do it every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

Andrew Romeo, a DeSantis campaign spokesperson, expressed gratitude to the “tens of thousands of grassroots supporters — and major donors — who have made it possible for us to build an unmatched organisation . . . with the ability to compete for the long haul”.

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington

*This story has been amended to clarify that Ken Griffin was not a supporter of Donald Trump

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