Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign briefly added Riley Gaines, an anti-transgender rights conservative activist and former collegiate swimmer, to his rolodex of paid political advisers.
Gaines made a name for herself in conservative circles by advocating for rules mandating that athletes must compete in the gender they are assigned at birth after she swam against a barrier-breaking transgender athlete. Gaines has a podcast, appears on right-wing media, and speaks at Republican events, including one hosted last weekend in Iowa by Governor Kim Reynolds.
“Riley is a remarkable young woman, has had a great career and she’s got a great set of values that guide her life,” DeSantis said in a video highlighting Gaines’s endorsement in the 2024 GOP presidential primary in June. “We’re honored to have her support.”
That DeSantis, who as governor of Florida has pursued an anti-LGBTQ agenda, is so closely aligned with Gaines is not particularly surprising. But the nearly $12,000 the DeSantis campaign paid Gaines, who graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2022, in a transaction dated early August of this year appears to be the first and only time it paid her.
His campaign said that Gaines was doing surrogate and coalition work but stopped after she got a podcast deal.
DeSantis’s campaign’s payment to Gaines, labeled “political strategy consulting” next to a separate transaction of almost $1000 for travel, was included in his campaign’s third quarter Federal Election Commission report over the weekend. The campaign did not answer an inquiry asking for additional details about the travel.
A representative for Gaines, Christine Goss, declined an interview request to speak about DeSantis and the 2024 primary. “That is not something she does media on. She talks about the issue of protecting women,” so “we would decline that” interview, Goss said. The Globe followed up with written questions about her consulting work, including whether Gaines has advised other campaigns. Her representative did not respond.
As governor of Florida, DeSantis has relentlessly targeted the LGBTQ community through his support of policies targeting gender-affirming care for minors, drag shows, and school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2021, he signed legislation in Florida targeting transgender athletes at public schools, barring transgender women from playing on girls and women’s sports teams.
“Women have fought for decades to have equal opportunities in athletics, and we have to prevent those opportunities from being eroded as is happening in other states. It’s common sense,” Desantis said in a press release from the day he signed it.
In addition to her endorsement being highlighted by the campaign, Gaines has also been featured in a political ad by Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis.
“I would wonder what sort of political strategy someone like Riley Gaines has to offer outside of simply having a negative opinion of LGBTQ people and especially transgender people who want to participate in sports with their friends,” said Brandon Wolf, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign who also previously worked for Equality Florida, both LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.
On the website for “The Riley Gaines Center at the Leadership Institute,” a fledgling initiative started in August, Gaines talks about the “fight” she’s been involved in to “save women’s sports.”
“The left has used all its power to destroy the distinctions between women and men — eliminating opportunities for women, and silencing those who dare to speak the truth,” says the center’s page. “The Riley Gaines Center identifies and recruits those targeted by the left.”
The website also has several upcoming events for Gaines listed, including one in Massachusetts later this month. She will be visiting Harvard University as part of a campus tour.