It’s been a rough two weeks for Ron DeSantis. Members of Congress from his own state have been endorsing Donald Trump in droves. A crippling gas shortage in South Florida coincided with the governor’s travel from South Carolina to South Korea, fueling a spate of negative headlines and “Where’s Ron?” memes. He’s been dropping in the polls. And perhaps most threatening to his presidential ambitions—some of his donors are pulling out.
But none of that is shaking the confidence of Robert Bigelow, the hotel tycoon and aeronautics executive who reveals to TIME that he is the largest donor by far to Never Back Down Inc., a super PAC backing DeSantis’s unofficial campaign for President. Bigelow, who was also the single-largest donor to DeSantis’s 2022 reelection bid, confirms that he has already donated a little more than $20 million to Never Back Down. He says that’s just a start. The super-rich businessman plans to continue putting his wealth behind sending the Florida governor to the Oval Office.
“I will give him more money and go without food,” Bigelow says.
His initial donation is a substantial increase from the $10 million contribution he made to DeSantis in the midterms last July. Bigelow, who is based in Las Vegas, says he made the $20 million donation on March 27. A senior Never Back Down official recently told The New York Times that the PAC raised $30 million from March 9 to April 3, meaning two-thirds of those dollars came from Bigelow.
A person familiar with Never Back Down’s fundraising confirmed both the Bigelow contribution and its share of the PAC’s overall donations in that time period. The source added that Never Back Down raised an additional $3 million on Thursday, though they wouldn’t say where or who it came from. “It really speaks to the fact that people really want Ron DeSantis to get in the race,” they said.
Bigelow made his fortune founding the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, and has drawn attention in recent years for large investments in research into UFOs and whether human beings possess souls that can survive the deaths of their bodies.
He is not the only high-net-worth individual sticking with DeSantis.
The billionaire hedge fund manager and Citadel founder Ken Griffin is also planning to financially support the Florida governor, Semafor reported on Tuesday. Griffin, one of the largest political donors in the midterm elections, gave roughly $75 million to Republican candidates, including $5 million to DeSantis’s war chest.
DeSantis has not yet formally launched a campaign, but he has been preparing to enter the race once the Florida legislature concludes its session next month.
Bigelow has in the past donated small amounts to both Republicans and Democrats, but he went all-in on DeSantis last summer. That was in part, he says, because he liked his first-term agenda, including his economic conservatism and attacks on “woke culture,” such as Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law that prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools. “I fully agree with him on all the woke-ism,” Bigelow tells me. “It really should not be up to the state to indoctrinate children. So I’m in full agreement with everything that he’s done.”
He doesn’t agree with DeSantis on everything. “I do disagree with the governor on the abortion issue,” he says, adding that he supports legal access to abortion through the first trimester of a pregnancy. But Bigelow went on to say that DeSantis’s restrictive abortion policies were not a dealbreaker.
A one-time Trump enthusiast, Bigelow says he could no longer stand behind the former president after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. “Trump lost his north,” he says. “He certainly lost me as a supporter, and as someone who would champion him. He showed that, in that particular hour, that he was no commander. He was absolutely no commander.”
Since Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg criminally prosecuted Trump for allegedly falsifying business records connected to hush money payments he made to a porn star, Trump has surged in the polls. A Reuters/Ipsos survey conducted after the indictment found Trump leading DeSantis by 58% to 21% among likely GOP voters—a gain of 10 percentage points from the week before.
He’s also been accruing a steady stream of endorsements from Republicans in Congress, including 11 members from Florida. DeSantis, on the other hand, only has the backing of one Hill legislator from his home state: Rep. Laurel Lee, who previously served as his first secretary of state. In a brutal act of D.C. savagery, Rep. Lance Gooden of Texas attended a DeSantis event put on by the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, only to emerge minutes later and endorse Trump.
Bigelow believes Trump’s legal woes would hurt him in a general election with moderate and independent voters. “We don’t expect Jesus Christ to be on the ballot,” he says. “But we also don’t expect somebody who is plagued by all kinds of criminal charges and civil charges against him all the time that he is going to be running for election. That just isn’t smart.”
The former president may also face charges in several other investigations against him, including a Georgia prosecutor’s probe into his efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election and Special Counsel Jack Smith’s inquiry into his handling of classified documents.
Bigelow’s vocal support of DeSantis comes in contrast to some other wealthy conservatives. One top mega-donor, Thomas Peterffy, told the Financial Times over the weekend that he was halting plans to help finance DeSantis’s presidential bid because of DeSantis’s proposal to ban LGBTQ-themed books and his signing into law a six-week abortion ban. A person familiar with the thinking of another top donor, Richard Uihlein, told NBC News he was pumping the brakes: “The polling really made different people pause.”
Bigelow, 78, insists that Trump would be “more beatable” than DeSantis against President Joe Biden. “Were he to actually be the Republican candidate, that would be a travesty,” he says of Trump.
Yet for all of Bigelow’s affection for DeSantis—and massive financial boosts to his political coffers—the two don’t speak regularly. “I communicate mostly through his campaign manager and other senior staff,” he says. It’s an account that some may see as attestation to the concerns that some Republicans have expressed about DeSantis lacking the charisma and retail politics magic to go the distance in 2024.
In Bigelow’s view, however, there aren’t any other Republicans who can win a hard-fought nomination battle. “He’s the right guy, especially at these times, I believe as far as a Republican candidate is concerned,” Bigelow says. “He’s going to have the record and he’ll have the right stuff to be the best candidate for the Republican Party.”
Still, the man from the gambling capital of the world seems to recognize that it’s a risky bet that anyone other than Trump can emerge victorious in what appears very much to still be the Trump-era GOP. But as his donations suggest, he’s sure going to try.
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Meet the Nation Builders
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time