Billionaire DeVos family looks to DeSantis, not Trump, in 2024

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gives a pen to student while signing five state house bills into law after giving a press conference at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, Florida, U.S. May 17, 2023.

Octavio Jones | Reuters

The billionaire DeVos family, whose matriarch Betsy DeVos served in Donald Trump’s Cabinet, appears to be backing Trump’s rival in the 2024 Republican presidential contest: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In late June, the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down recorded a $50,000 donation from NBA franchise the Orlando Magic, according to a recent campaign filing.

A spokesman for the Magic would not say who authorized the donation and initially declined to comment.

And though the Federal Election Commission filing does not name any member of the DeVos family, the Michigan billionaires, own the team.

Less well known is the longstanding alliance the DeVos family has with DeSantis, one that dates back to his first run for governor in 2018, according to records reviewed by CNBC. Underpinning this alliance is a shared vision for deeply conservative education policy.

As DeSantis campaigns for president in part on his work to remake Florida’s public education system to eliminate what he calls “wokeness,” the DeVos-DeSantis alliance offers a window into how the governor has nurtured allies on some of his most controversial positions.

The Magic spokesman, Joel Glass, later told CNBC the donation was in support of DeSantis as governor.

“To clarify, the gift was given before Governor DeSantis entered the presidential race. It was given as a Florida business in support of a Florida governor for the continued prosperity of Central Florida,” he said as CNBC inquired about the contribution on Wednesday.

The check was dated and delivered on May 19, Glass added, more than a month before the listed June deposit date. DeSantis officially launched his campaign for president on May 24.

Senior members of the DeVos family who have current or recent stakes in the Orlando Magic include the former secretary of education, her husband, Dick DeVos, and her brother-in-law Dan DeVos.

Following publication of this story, Betsy DeVos’ chief of staff, Nate Bailey, said she was “undecided and uncommitted on the race for president, as is the entire DeVos family.”

Bailey added that DeVos has “worked with DeSantis on education issues, as she has almost every other governor in the country.”

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enters the room to take part in a Federal Commission on School Safety meeting at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 16, 2018. 

Leah Millis | Reuters

A spokesman for the DeVos family investment firm, RDV, likewise did not return requests for comment.

But the donation made a splash in Trump’s world, where Jason Miller, a Trump senior advisor, took aim at the Orlando Magic for their contribution to the DeSantis super PAC.

“I wonder what Magic players will have to say about their team giving $50K to Ron DeSanctimonious’ PAC given his new Florida history curriculum,” Miller said in a tweet this week.

But that curriculum is exactly what draws members of the DeVos family to DeSantis.

For decades, Betsy and Dick DeVos have been involved with financing candidates or groups that push for more funding to private school education and school choice. This includes millions spent to boost the failed former Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon in her 2022 campaign.

As Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos backed major cuts in federal spending on education, and got regular pushback from lawmakers.

But the donation from the DeVos-owned Orlando Magic toward DeSantis suggests that the family may not intend to support Trump in 2024, at least not yet.

As of Wednesday, no members of the DeVos family appear to have contributed to Trump’s primary campaign in the first half of this year. That includes gifts to Trump’s super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., according to FEC records.

Trump was criminally charged Tuesday with illegally conspiring to overturn his election loss to President Joe Biden in 2020.

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Nonetheless, he still holds a commanding lead over the primary field, where he leads DeSantis by double digits in a slew of polls.

To understand how closely DeVos and DeSantis align on education policy, consider this recording of a tele-town hall from April 2022, obtained by CNBC, and featuring Betsy DeVos and the governor.

At the time, DeVos and her allies were aiming to acquire signatures for petitions that reportedly would allow the use of taxpayer funds to cover private school tuition and other related expenses. Chalkbeat Detroit reported earlier this year that those petitions failed to gain steam in the Michigan state legislature.

On the recording, DeVos can be heard raving about how DeSantis, in her view, has “greatly expanded and improved Florida’s student and parent first approach to education.” DeSantis is asked on the call by a participant “how are you working to empower families even more in the face of liberal indoctrination policies?”

DeSantis responds, in part, that students in his view should not be “subjected to indoctrination” and points to legislation he signed which is “basically making sure that these young kids are not having sexuality injected into the classroom curriculum” and “whether it’s we prohibit really harmful ideologies such as CRT [critical race theory],” he says.

Listen to leaked audio of Betsy DeVos and Ron Santis during April 2022 town hall

A day after DeSantis spoke on the DeVos led tele-town hall, the governor signed legislation that barred schools and workplaces from “subjecting an employee or student to a required activity that promotes, advances, or compels individuals to believe discriminatory concepts, constitutes unlawful discrimination,” according to the press release at the time.

Bailey, DeVos’ chief of staff, said the April call was “for a Michigan education effort. [Former Vice President Mike] Pence came in and did two events for that effort.”

Almost a year later, and months before DeSantis officially launched his campaign for president, Betsy DeVos cheered on another education initiative signed by the governor that was meant to expand school choice in Florida.

“EVERY SINGLE CHILD in Florida will benefit from #EducationFreedom Major kudos to @GovRonDeSantis and every Florida leader who made this possible,” Betsy DeVos tweeted in March.

The DeVos family bought the Orlando Magic in 1991. Dan DeVos is the chairman of the team and chairman of RDV Sports which owns the Orlando Magic and other sports teams, according to the Magic’s website.

Darius Garland #10 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots over Admiral Schofield #25 and Chuma Okeke #3 of the Orlando Magic during the second quarter at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on March 28, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Jason Miller | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

Betsy DeVos, who is married to Dan DeVos’ brother, Dick DeVos, also appears to have financial ties to the Orlando Magic.

Her last financial disclosure report as she resigned from the Trump administration in 2021 shows that either she or her husband, or the two combined, had an investment valued at over $50 million into Orlando Magic Ltd.

That company owns the Magic and an NBA G League franchise, according to the disclosure. The filing says in that year alone, the couple made over $4 million off of that investment. Orlando Magic Ltd. is the same name listed on the filing of the $50,000 contribution to the DeSantis super PAC.

The fact that the DeVos family appears to have chosen an alternative to Trump is not entirely surprising.

Signs that the DeVos family may have started distancing themselves from Trump were evident in Betsy DeVos’ resignation letter after the riot on Jan. 6, 2021 on Capitol Hill.

DeVos blamed Trump for the riot that took place two years ago at the capitol within her resignation letter. “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” she wrote in a letter dated Jan. 7, 2021.

Beyond the tele-town hall and tweets, the DeVos’ have been regular donors to DeSantis’ past gubernatorial campaigns, according to state campaign finance records.

The family members have combined to give over $350,000 toward either a state based PAC that backed DeSantis’ two successful runs for governor or directly to his gubernatorial campaigns, the records show.

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