Major G.O.P. Donor’s Commitment to DeSantis Is Murkier Than Thought

Nearly six months ago, Kenneth Griffin, the Republican megadonor and hedge fund executive, seemed poised to be a powerful financial backer of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in his anticipated run for president.

Mr. Griffin had given $5 million to Mr. DeSantis’s re-election effort, and he told Politico that while Mr. DeSantis was not yet a White House candidate, “he has a tremendous record as governor of Florida, and our country would be well served by him as president.”

These days, Mr. Griffin is keeping his cards closer to the vest, and his intentions are harder to discern. A person familiar with his thinking, noting that Mr. DeSantis had not yet made his run official, said Mr. Griffin was still evaluating the Republican primary race as it unfolded.

The financier and Mr. DeSantis met in Florida in the last two weeks, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting, which came as Mr. Griffin has taken issue in private conversations with some of Mr. DeSantis’s policy moves and pronouncements. In particular, the two people said, Mr. Griffin was deeply troubled by Mr. DeSantis’s statements that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “territorial dispute” — a remark he later tried to clarify — and that the war was not a vital U.S. interest.

Mr. Griffin, who has made clear that he wants to move on from former President Donald J. Trump, was also disconcerted by a six-week abortion ban in Florida that Mr. DeSantis recently signed, according to the people familiar with Mr. Griffin’s thinking, who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations. Last year, Mr. Griffin moved his hedge fund, Citadel, to Miami from Chicago, citing crime concerns.

The meeting between the governor and Mr. Griffin was, for the most part, one on one, without staff members, one of the people briefed on it said, and it was one of their few direct interactions. Reading Mr. Griffin’s intentions after the meeting has been difficult for some people close to him.

One person predicted the financier was still likely to donate to Mr. DeSantis once he made his candidacy official, which could happen as early as next month. But the person said Mr. Griffin might also give to other candidates who seemed able to defeat Mr. Trump.

In a statement, Zia Ahmed, a spokesman for Mr. Griffin, ticked off Mr. DeSantis’s “many accomplishments” and mentioned job creation, “increasing the number of quality school options, and prioritizing the safety of our communities.”

He went on, “Ken may not agree with all of the governor’s policies, but he appreciates all that the governor has done to make Florida one of the most attractive states to live and work in America.”

But Mr. Ahmed declined to address what Mr. Griffin thought about the presidential race. A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis declined to comment.

What Mr. Griffin does is being closely watched, after word spread of his unhappiness about how Mr. DeSantis had comported himself early this year.

Mr. DeSantis’s supporters say there is still a broad appetite — in the donor community and among prospective voters — for a viable Republican alternative to Mr. Trump.

“The money has walked,” said Roy Bailey, a Dallas businessman and longtime Republican fund-raiser for Mr. Trump. “From my conversations with a lot of people from around the country, it has moved to DeSantis. It is a cold, hard fact.”

Mr. Bailey disputed the idea that momentum had shifted away from Mr. DeSantis recently.

In the first two weeks of May, Mr. DeSantis is set to host a series of small dinners with major donors and supporters from across the country at the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, according to two people with knowledge of his plans.

If Mr. DeSantis enters the presidential race as expected, he will be armed with a well-funded super PAC, Never Back Down, which said this month that it had raised $30 million in its first few weeks of fund-raising.

Two-thirds of that money, $20 million, came from a single donor, the Nevada hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, Time magazine reported.

In private conversations, Mr. DeSantis’s associates have indicated that they have $100 million in commitments to the super PAC, along with roughly $82 million in a Florida committee that will probably be transferred to Never Back Down.

Still, some donors who had hoped Mr. DeSantis could stop Mr. Trump have cooled their enthusiasm.

Thomas Peterffy, a prominent conservative donor, also cited Florida’s abortion law in explaining why he was withholding support from Mr. DeSantis for now. Mr. Peterffy had supported Mr. DeSantis in his state campaigns, and according to one person familiar with the event, hosted Mr. DeSantis at his house early in his first term as governor. But Mr. Peterffy told The Financial Times this month he was holding still, as were some friends.

Some donors have also expressed concern about Mr. DeSantis’s pre-campaign strategy. When his allies made clear this year that he would not enter the race before the end of the legislative session in Florida, Mr. DeSantis effectively gave Mr. Trump three months to define him — and taunt him — before becoming a candidate.

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