The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top adviser to Youngkin moves to pro-DeSantis group

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to members of the press in the state Capitol building in Richmond on Feb. 25. (John C. Clark/AP)
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The top political adviser to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has joined a political group supporting a likely presidential run by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), according to two people familiar with the matter.

Jeff Roe, the head of Axiom Strategies and the top strategist for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), is now working for Never Back Down, a pro-DeSantis political committee that is likely to serve as a favored outside spending vehicle for a DeSantis presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the planning, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

The hire raises further doubts about Youngkin’s interest in a 2024 presidential campaign, following a recent appearance at a private donor retreat in Sea Island, Ga., where the Virginia governor appeared uninterested in entertaining questions about a run for national office, according to multiple people present.

Hours after the news of Roe’s new commitment to DeSantis, Youngkin announced Thursday morning that he was bringing on a new political adviser. GOP strategist Dave Rexrode will become chairman of his Spirit of Virginia political action committee and “senior adviser to the governor," he announced.

Rexrode is the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, where he spent eight years raising hundreds of millions of dollars to help elect GOP governors around the country. Rexrode is also a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia who worked with then-Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) in 2011 on elections in which the party won full control of the state legislature.

Youngkin continues to plan to travel to Texas next month, and a few weeks after that to California, where he’ll meet with prospective donors, according to a person familiar with his plans. Axiom will continue to advise Youngkin, said another person familiar with the arrangement.

Roe had previously told others that he felt loyalty to Youngkin, but in a February appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” the strategist said he sees the Republican nomination contest as a two-person race between DeSantis and former president Donald Trump, with “no room for a third or fourth, or even fifth person in this race.” Roe, who later said those comments were not a comment on Youngkin’s potential, has previously indicated that he expects his firm, Axiom, to only work for a single presidential candidate this cycle, rather than splitting loyalties.

A spokeswoman for Youngkin’s office did not respond Wednesday night to a request for comment. Roe’s move to Never Back Down was first reported by Politico.

Never Back Down, which announced its formation earlier this month, is headed by Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump administration, and Chris Jankowski, a former official at the Republican State Leadership Committee, who has previously worked with Phil Cox, a top adviser to DeSantis.

Jankowski worked for an anti-Youngkin political action committee during the 2021 governor’s race. Virginia Cornerstone PAC, which Jankowski insisted was unaffiliated with any candidate, painted Youngkin as an out-of-touch investor. “Youngkin puts profits over people,” one of its videos declared.

DeSantis has over $80 million in his state political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, which cannot be transferred into a presidential campaign since it was not collected in accordance with federal campaign finance rules for candidates. Much of that is left over from his gubernatorial race last year, but the committee has continued to rake in large donations, taking in about $10 million in February.

However, DeSantis’s state political committee could attempt to transfer its funds to an independent group that would aid a DeSantis presidential campaign, raising the likelihood that Never Back Down soon finds itself with a solid financial footing to pay for advertising and even field operations to support the DeSantis campaign. Under federal campaign finance rules, independent groups that raise unlimited funds cannot directly coordinate on spending strategies with the candidates they support.

Never Back Down is asking donors to give no more than $3,300 so it can be forwarded into a possible DeSantis presidential campaign once it is formed.

Youngkin, who became a GOP star in 2021 when he won the governor’s race in Virginia, courted national donors at a retreat in September, including many out-of-state benefactors interested in testing his mettle as a presidential contender. Roe appeared at that event, helping to moderate discussions.

But the buzz around a possible Youngkin campaign for president has been fading in recent months, as the governor has focused on his legislative agenda and elections later this year in his state. Under Virginia law, Youngkin cannot seek a consecutive second four-year term.

Youngkin was given a prime speaking slot at a recent retreat hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Sea Island, Ga., but multiple attendees at the closed-door gathering said he focused his comments on his accomplishments in Virginia and the upcoming legislative elections in the state. While other speakers, such as former vice president Mike Pence and Gov. Chris Sununu (R-N.H.), made clear they were considering a run for president and laid out a vision for national office, Youngkin demurred, they said.

“It was missed softball after missed softball,” said one attendee at the event, referring to Youngkin’s performance in front of a crowd focused on 2024. “He had every opportunity.”

Axiom has grown in recent years to become one of the largest Republican consulting firms in the country, with 17 different operations that handle all parts of campaigning, including field operations, data collection and television advertising. In addition to the Youngkin race in 2021, Roe worked on a number of Republican Senate races in 2022, including the failed Pennsylvania bid of David McCormick and the Arizona bid of Jim Lamon. Roe also worked on the successful Missouri campaign of Sen. Eric Schmitt (R).

Even while advising Youngkin, Roe spoke to multiple other presidential contenders about their preparations for a presidential effort, according to people familiar with the planning. He has made it widely known that he expected Axiom to work for another presidential contender in 2024, after leading the Cruz effort in 2016, which was the last time a Republican mounted a serious challenge to Trump.

Gregory Schneider, Laura Vozzella and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.