TALLAHASSEE — Billionaire GOP donor David MacNeil has said his political checkbook is closed to Republicans who oppose immigration reforms. But he’s making an exception for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
MacNeil, who founded Illinois-based WeatherTech but now lives in Florida, told POLITICO in 2018 that he would stop donating to GOP opponents of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants protections from deportation to more than 600,000 young immigrants brought to America as children. Florida is home to over 24,000 DACA recipients, the fifth most of any state in the country.
The issue is personal for MacNeil, who previously said he’s worried that top staffers at his company could face deportation. It apparently resonated so much with MacNeil that he didn’t financially support former President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection bid despite giving $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. In 2017, Trump tried to end DACA.
Yet MacNeil has become a major donor to DeSantis, contributing $800,000 this year alone. Late last month, MacNeil gave DeSantis’ political committee $300,000, and in May handed over a $500,000 check.
DeSantis has generally taken a hard-line approach on immigration, including in recent months sending more than 50 Florida law enforcement officers to the Texas border. He also held a press conference at Del Rio, Texas, — over a thousand miles away from Florida — decrying cross-border drug trafficking and urging the Biden administration to reinstate Trump’s immigration policies.
MacNeil, who emigrated from Canada and is now a U.S. citizen, declined to discuss DeSantis when asked on Tuesday.
“I’m a private person living in Florida, you have a wonderful day,” MacNeil said in a brief phone call.
DeSantis has used immigration as a key element in his fundraising operation. The governor, who has not officially filed to run for reelection in 2022 but is undoubtedly expected to, has raised more than $40 million since the beginning of the year through his political committee, which gives him a commanding lead over Democratic rivals Rep. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. In recent weeks, DeSantis has tried to blame immigrants for the nation’s summer spike in Covid-19 cases — a claim refuted by National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins.
Donors both big and small have poured millions into DeSantis’ coffers, but MacNeil stands out because he has tied his public political identity to a pro-immigration position — one DeSantis has opposed going back to his days in Congress. And he has not become just another DeSantis supporter, but one of the biggest.
DeSantis' office directed questions about the governor’s current position on DACA to Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré, who said she was not sure where the governor stood on protections for so-called Dreamers or if he had discussed immigration with MacNeil.
“I haven’t spoken to the governor about DACA nor can I comment on a private conversation he may or may not have had with Mr. MacNeil,” she said.
Supporters of Trump, who won Florida in 2020 by more than three points, have effectively taken over the Florida Republican base, which mirrors the former president’s position on most policy areas, including immigration.
Taking a hard-line approach on immigration resonates so well with Florida’s GOP base voters that it was a regular line of attack DeSantis used in the 2018 gubernatorial primary against former Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.
At the state level, MacNeil, whose company manufactures automotive accessories, has only contributed to Florida candidates going back to 2017. His first contribution was $17,000 to a political committee controlled by Putnam, and he has since given a total of $1 million to DeSantis’ political committee, records show.
MacNeil has also supported Florida U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, the former Florida governor who was initially a DACA skeptic but now says he supports the program. MacNeil has given $100,000 to a federal committee controlled by Scott, and another nearly $95,000 to the Scott-chaired National Republican Senatorial Committee. MacNeil has not contributed to any of the other potential 2024 GOP contenders such as Scott or former Vice President Mike Pence.
MacNeil has become such a large piece of DeSantis’ recent fundraising efforts that the governor’s political opponents have included him among the wealthy donors they are attacking by name. The dark money group 3.14 Action, which has a goal of electing more scientists to Congress, tied MacNeil’s contributions to Florida’s fight with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As governor, Ron DeSantis has made protecting his state from Covid-19 a political game. And under his watch, over 42,000 Floridians died from Covid-19 because he abdicated his role in leading the state,” the group wrote. “David MacNeil funded DeSantis’ agenda as one of his biggest campaign donors.”
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