Axiom Strategies and Vanguard Field Strategies, firms helmed by prominent Republican strategist Jeff Roe, have been paid nearly $29 million by an organization pushing a 2024 ballot initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana. A DeSantis-aligned attorney general is fighting their work, and the governor himself has said he broadly opposes legalization.
But as Axiom and Vanguard try to circumvent DeSantis’ opposition to weed in Florida, they’re also trying to get him elected president — in part on an anti-weed platform.
Axiom and Vanguard have been paid over $25 million by the pro-DeSantis Never Back Down through the end of June, making them the super PACs’ highest-paid vendors. Never Back Down oversees much of the DeSantis campaign, standing up get-out-the-vote programs, hosting events he appears at and even providing transportation for the governor.
That the firms have taken on conflicting clients illustrates the peril that comes with how DeSantis has designed his political apparatus, something that has increasingly become a topic of discussion within the governor’s orbit. Because the campaign and super PAC are legally prohibited from coordinating, DeSantis has had to bet his political future on an outfit whose approach and interests don’t always align with his own.
There have been growing tensions and finger-pointing in recent weeks between the DeSantis campaign and Never Back Down, as the two organizations have grappled with how to improve the governor’s standing in a primary where his prospects have diminished.
DeSantis allies say he was infuriated by the super PAC’s decision to post on Axiom’s website a memo offering instructions on the strategy he should adopt in last month’s debate. They argue the memo made it harder for DeSantis, boxing him in and setting expectations for his performance.
A few weeks later, a recording emerged from a Never Back Down donor briefing in which Roe said that DeSantis had a 60-day window, beginning on Labor Day, in order to defeat former President Donald Trump and that he needed to move ahead of his other GOP rivals “now.” The declaration, some Republicans said, put an arbitrary time frame on when DeSantis would need to surpass Trump, who is leading the governor by wide margins in polling.
The conflict between DeSantis and his super PAC team over pot use threatens to complicate the governor’s efforts to cast himself as tough on even recreational drugs. If successful, the initiative could also prove to be an embarrassment for the governor: Putting him out of step with his own constituents on a hot-button cultural issue.
During a recent event hosted by Never Back Down, the governor expressed concern that pot had grown increasingly potent in recent years and that it could be laced with fentanyl, potentially endangering children who use it.
“I think it’s a real, real problem, and I think it’s a lot different than stuff that people were using 30 or 40 years ago,” DeSantis said. “And I think when kids get on that, I think it causes a lot of problems.”
The recreational marijuana initiative, which has been funded largely by marijuana giant Trulieve, is viewed by Florida Democrats as a potential vehicle for reviving their moribund status in the state. Party officials and volunteers have been working to gather signatures for it.
But there is no guarantee that it will actually make the ballot. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a DeSantis ally who has endorsed his White House campaign, has filed a brief with the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court urging for it to be struck down.
“We are confident that the Florida Supreme Court will see that we followed the law and their guidance in drafting this initiative and reject the last-ditch efforts to prevent Florida voters from making this decision for themselves, as the Constitution provides,” said a Smart and Safe Florida spokesperson.
Axiom is one of the Republican Party’s largest consulting firms and has long taken on a wide array of clients. The breadth of its portfolio, those familiar with the firm say, has occasionally resulted in Axiom concurrently working for clients who have ideological differences. The firm’s work for Florida’s pro-marijuana initiative began in 2022, months before it signed on with Never Back Down this past March.
Since last year, Axiom and Vanguard have emerged as the largest vendors for Smart & Safe Florida, the outfit that is spearheading the pot initiative, which would allow for adults 21 years of age and older to obtain marijuana for non-medical use. The firms combined account for more than 70 percent of the total amount spent by the group.
“Axiom is a company with hundreds of employees where it’s not uncommon to have different team members working on different projects,” said Chris Pack, an Axiom spokesperson. “Axiom signed with Smart & Safe Florida in June 2022 and Never Back Down in March 2023. These two entities are totally separate from one another, which is why nobody in the media has written about this since it was first reported on months ago.”
A DeSantis spokesperson declined to comment, though they pointed to remarks the governor has made conveying his opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
The pro-cannabis initiative has turned into a major political fight. Smart & Safe Florida has reported obtaining more than 960,000 signatures, more than the total it needs to qualify for the ballot. But Moody has moved to strike the initiative, arguing that it “misleads” voters and would financially benefit Trulieve, the cannabis company that is bankrolling the campaign. The pro-marijuana organization has aggressively pushed back, saying that the attorney general’s argument “strains credulity.”
While DeSantis has expressed openness to the use of medical marijuana, he has aggressively established himself as opposed to legalization for recreational purposes. Last year, the governor complained about the drug’s “pungent odor” and said he wanted Floridians “to be able to breathe freely.”
DeSantis has signed legislation tightening restrictions on advertising that would promote recreational marijuana use. And while campaigning earlier this year, the governor said he would not decriminalize marijuana if elected president and that the drug “hurts our workforce readiness” and “people’s ability to prosper.”
Jessica Piper contributed to this report.