Ron DeSantis is looking for a fresh start. Last week, the Florida governor fired roughly a dozen staffers and offloaded two top aides to a pro-DeSantis super PAC, signaling a campaign reset amid an existential crisis: He’s failed to meet fundraising goals, burned cash at an alarming clip, and has been faltering in the polls. If things don’t turn around soon, there may be more layoffs, according to sources familiar with the matter, who say that donors are exasperated with the campaign’s underwhelming performance thus far.
Yet the latest staff shakeup isn’t an anomaly within the arc of DeSantis’ career. It’s part of a larger pattern of a politician who has struggled to maintain a core group of trusted advisers or loyal employees.
During his five years in Congress, his office had one of the highest turnover rates in the House. No employed member from his victorious 2018 gubernatorial campaign team is working in a senior role on his 2024 presidential race. And things didn’t change when he became governor. In his first term, he fired staffers with enough regularity that some formed an emotional support group, according to a 2021 Politico report. Now, DeSantis is shedding staff only two months into his bid to beat out former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.
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DeSantis’ long history of staffing woes has been a red flag to some of the party’s veteran hands. One prominent GOP operative in touch with DeSantis, who requested anonymity to speak freely, advised him last winter that he would struggle to compete at the national level without a cohesive campaign nucleus. “I told him early on: In my lifetime, I’ve never watched someone win a major race—not a congressional race, but a major contested race—without being able to keep a team and trust the team,” the source recounts to TIME.
It’s a reason why that same Republican operative warned high-net-worth donors who were looking for an alternative to Trump against investing too heavily in DeSantis until they could see how he performed as a presidential candidate. “People who were big players were thinking about giving 50 or 100 million dollars,” the source says. “I told them, ‘You should stitch that in and see if he can make it more than six months with actual professionals in charge.’”
Since DeSantis formally entered the race in May through a glitch-riddled announcement on Twitter, he hasn’t inspired more confidence. A national Reuters/Ipsos poll from last week has Trump leading him by a commanding 28-point margin. It comes as Trump’s multiple criminal indictments have only appeared to endear him more to Republican primary voters.
The DeSantis camp is trying to reassure donors that it can turn things around. In private meetings with top contributors, they’ve said they believe adverse press coverage has hampered the campaign rollout and have vowed to embark on a new strategy.
“No matter how much the media and D.C. elites try to destroy Ron DeSantis, they can’t change the fact that this is a two-man race for the nomination,” the campaign’s communications director Andrew Romeo tells TIME. “Ron DeSantis is ready to prove the doubters wrong yet again and our campaign is prepared to execute on his vision for the Great American Comeback as we transition into the next phase of winning this primary and beating Joe Biden.”
Read More: The DeSantis Project
Yet those who’ve worked with the Florida governor before expect staff turnover to continue to plague his presidential bid. They say he has never been one to forge lasting emotional bonds with people who work for him. “The same struggle that he has with voters, he has with staff,” another Republican operative familiar with the DeSantis campaign operation tells TIME. “When things start to sour, it’s easy for staff to either leave on their own volition, or it’s easy for the boss to ultimately cut staff loose. There are no personal connections there.”
One person who has been at DeSantis’ side through every campaign is his wife Casey, who has a heavy influence over his political strategy. That dynamic has led some to doubt that any staffing changes can truly reorient the campaign when it will always be the two of them calling the shots. “His top advisor comes with the house,” the source close to DeSantis says. “It’s his wife. There’s no firing his spouse. The idea that DeSantis can do a reset is a complete fallacy.”
While early campaign issues are an ominous sign for DeSantis’ 2024 presidential ambitions, there is some precedent for a Republican presidential candidate clinching the party’s nomination after a major staff shakeup.
In July 2007, John McCain dropped two of his top political aides, at the same point of the 2008 presidential election cycle. “The guy had run for president once already and still had to completely recalibrate,” says Jon Seaton, who worked on George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign and McCain’s 2008 bid. “John McCain was kind of proof positive that a rocky rollout doesn’t necessarily mean your campaign is doomed.”
But there were also significant differences between the two primaries. McCain, a longtime Senator from Arizona, entered that race as the likely frontrunner, and neither of his main competitors—former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—had anything resembling the loyalty of Trump’s base. DeSantis, on the other hand, is going up against the most dominant force in GOP politics.
Presidential campaigns inevitably face adversities and vicissitudes. That’s why seasoned campaign veterans say a candidate needs people who have been through the trenches with them before. It’s a source of consternation and confusion to Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant who worked on the 2018 DeSantis gubernatorial campaign, that no one from that team is part of his inner circle now. “He will have nothing to do with anyone associated with that close, amazing victory,” Ayres tells TIME. “He will have nothing to do with the general consultant, the campaign manager, the financial consultant, neither one of the media firms, or the polling firm. Most of the time when politicians win races, especially when they’re close, hard-fought races, they keep at least some members of the team that helped them win. But he basically will have nothing to do with any of them.”
In that election, DeSantis beat his rival, Democrat Andrew Gillum, by roughly 30,000 votes. Trump and his team are quick to point out that DeSantis secured the nomination with Trump’s endorsement months earlier. Now that he’s running against the former President, Trump has called him “ungrateful” and a “lousy candidate” who only rose to the governor’s mansion on his coattails.
But the challenge for DeSantis going forward may be whether he can re-introduce himself as a credible new standard bearer for a Republican Party that doesn’t seem ready to move on from Trump.
“He’s kind of already defined himself,” the GOP operative who previously worked with DeSantis says. “That’s the tough part about where he is: He is very well known by our base. He’s pre-defined. That doesn’t leave him a lot of wiggle room to maneuver.”
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