A campaign watchdog group filed a complaint on Monday with the Federal Election Commission against the campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and a super PAC backing his presidential bid, accusing them of a “textbook example” of illegal campaign coordination.
In its complaint, the Campaign Legal Center argued that the super PAC, Never Back Down, had effectively served as Mr. DeSantis’s campaign, detailing work it has done like providing private air travel, bankrolling a costly ground game in early nominating states, providing debate strategies and hosting events on the road. In turn, Mr. DeSantis and his wife, the group says, provided guidance about messaging to Never Back Down.
The complaint relies largely on news reports, in The New York Times and elsewhere, that for months have described Never Back Down’s extraordinary role in Mr. DeSantis’s candidacy. In recent weeks, the super PAC’s leadership has been roiled by concerns about advertising messaging and the legality of its close ties with the campaign, setting off a series of high-profile departures.
“This baseless complaint is just another example of how the left is terrified of Ron DeSantis and will stoop to anything to stop him,” said Andrew Romeo, communications director for Mr. DeSantis’s campaign. “The F.E.C. has made clear they won’t take action based upon unverified rumors and innuendo, and that’s the false information this politically motivated complaint is based on.”
Mr. DeSantis said on Monday that the upheaval at the deep-pocketed Never Back Down was “not a distraction for me.”
Speaking to reporters after an event at a factory in Adel, Iowa, Mr. DeSantis said he didn’t have any thoughts on the weekend resignation of Jeff Roe, the influential chief strategist at Never Back Down.
“I’m not involved in any of that,” he said. “As you guys know, it’s a separate entity and so, this stuff just happens and it’s not in my purview.”
Mr. DeSantis has said he is the drama-free candidate, in comparison to former President Donald J. Trump. But the chaos at Never Back Down has undercut his narrative. When Mr. DeSantis addressed reporters after his Monday event, half of the questions were about Mr. Roe’s departure.
For months, Never Back Down has been plagued by disagreements over its strategy and direction, as it became clear that former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina was threatening to usurp Mr. DeSantis’s position as the leading Republican alternative to Mr. Trump, who maintains a dominant lead in early state polls. Allies of Mr. DeSantis had wanted Never Back Down to focus more on its canvassing and voter turnout operation, and less on television advertisements.
The complaint to the F.E.C. sets off a chain of events: Mr. DeSantis and his campaign have 15 days to respond to the complaint, after which the F.E.C.’s general counsel will review the case and make a recommendation to the six-member commission.
The F.E.C., divided evenly between Democratic and Republican members, often deadlocks on questions of whether campaigns have broken the law. A spokeswoman for the F.E.C. said the commission would not comment on potential enforcement matters.
While the backroom drama will probably go unnoticed by many voters, the chaos at Never Back Down is expected to be a cause for concern for Republican megadonors, who are increasingly looking to support Ms. Haley.
The Campaign Legal Center has filed four complaints with the F.E.C. in connection with Mr. DeSantis and Never Back Down, including one accusing the PAC of violating the ban on “soft” money in federal elections. The group has also accused Mr. Trump and a committee backing him of violating the soft money ban, and has accused a super PAC backing former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey of accepting illegal contributions.