Voters and GOP leaders in Florida’s panhandle rush to defend the young congressman as he sustains repeat attacks from others in his caucus.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) hails from Florida’s alligator-infested panhandle. But for the 41-year-old, Washington is the real “swamp.”
Chief among the targets in the Florida congressman’s self-professed efforts to drain said swamp has been former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) whom he famously ousted in October after months of feuding.
All Democrats and seven Republicans joined Mr. Gaetz to strip Mr. McCarthy of the gavel—the first time in the country’s 247-year history. Mr. McCarthy’s infraction was passing a stopgap spending bill to avert a government shutdown on Sept. 30, an alleged breach of his promise made in January when he was elected speaker to reform the legislative process.
Mr. Gaetz’s stunning move drew fury from many in the Republican conference. Lawmakers blamed him for throwing the House into “chaos.” Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.) called the Florida Republican an “egotistical maniac.”
“I think that yesterday was all about a personal vendetta, and he utilized one of the oldest American institutions to carry out a personal problem with Kevin McCarthy,” Mr. D’Esposito said the day after the vote.
National polling conducted after the ouster also showed the Florida congressman’s approval taking a hit. But despite the hostility in Washington and elsewhere, the congressman enjoys far less ill-will back at home.
“Matt Gaetz honestly could not have done what he did if he did not have such strong support of the Panhandle population. And we support him so solidly that he can make bold moves and know that he’s not going to be attacked when he gets home,” said Sharon Regan, chairwoman of the Santa Rosa Republican Party.
Florida’s 1st Congressional District, which Mr. Gaetz represents, is the most Republican-leaning district in the state, according to the Cook Political Report.
Ms. Regan recounted a rally on Oct. 30 where Mr. Gaetz and his parents invited supporters to a local bar, expecting a crowd of 100. More than 1,200 people showed up to the event.
Sandra Atkinson, chairwoman of the Okaloosa County Republican Party, said that Mr. Gaetz held a “spur of the moment” rally in her county in early November with a crowd of 500.
However, Chairman John Roberts of the Escambia County Republican Party said a recent event in his county elicited mixed responses. While some cheered when speakers mentioned Mr. Gaetz’s name, others sat in silence.
Many support the congressman “for everything, [but] there are some people who swear they will never vote for him again. So you got both sides,” Mr. Roberts said.
Refusal to Take PAC Money
One oft-repeated compliment of Mr. Gaetz is his recent refusal to accept money from political action committees (PACs) and instead directly fundraise from his district. While some GOP representatives criticize Mr. Gaetz’s political moves as mere attempts to capture the spotlight and essentially fundraise from a bigger podium, some in his district praise this fact.
“You know, [Mr. Gaetz is] one of the few that relies on donations. And that’s one of the things that bothered me about McCarthy,” said Bill Marquardt, a resident of Santa Rosa County. “It was for the people that he was indebted to for the, for the money.”
Patty Burke, also from Santa Rosa, wishes more politicians followed the congressman’s fundraising stance.
“If I could wave a magic wand, the only fundraiser campaign donations would only come within the district because it’s grossly unfair for people like Soros or anybody else, Hollywood, to invest in races that they personally are, you know, it’s not their representative—we’re skewing it,” she said.
Mr. Marquardt mentioned that NPR allegedly sent a reporter to Mr. Gaetz’s district after the ouster fallout. The reporter allegedly attended a GOP club meeting, but struggled to find anyone willing to criticize the congressman, Mr. Marquardt said. NPR did not return an inquiry about this claim.
He believes the reporter “got the pulse of Santa Rosa County.” According to Mr. Marquardt, a woman told the reporter “what [Mr. Gaetz] did is good for Republicans, it’s good for Democrats, and it’s good for the country.”
However, this year’s clashes with Mr. McCarthy are hardly the first instances where Mr. Gaetz received broad criticisms from within the Republican party.
Mr. Gaetz was subject to a nearly three-year-long sex-trafficking investigation after his associate and former Seminole County tax collector, Joel Greenberg, was arrested and accused of allegedly taking a 17-year-old girl across state lines to engage in sexual activity.
Mr. Greenberg was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2022. He pleaded guilty to six federal crimes, including stalking, identity theft, wire fraud, conspiracy to bribe a public official, and paying at least one girl for sexual activity.
Mr. Gaetz was initially tied to the sex-trafficking allegation and was investigated by the Democrat-controlled House Ethics Committee in 2021. The Justice Department cleared Mr. Gaetz in 2023 and declined to charge him.
Mr. Marquardt admitted he was initially wary of the accusations against Mr. Gaetz when the story emerged. It was the only time he briefly questioned the congressman’s character.
For his part, Mr. Gaetz vehemently denied the allegations from the beginning and claimed it was part of a political extortion scheme.
“No part of the allegations against me are true,” Mr. Gaetz said in a statement in April 2021.
However, many GOP lawmakers, including Mr. McCarthy, criticized Mr. Gaetz throughout the investigation. Mr. McCarthy called the allegations “serious” when speaking with reporters in 2021.
Despite it all, Mr. Gaetz’s image appears to endure like Teflon—the Justice Department investigation dissolved, the 15 rounds of speaker voting in January didn’t end his career, nor did the “chaos” erupting out of the lower chamber in October.
For his part, Mr. Roberts was unhappy about the vote to vacate the speakership. He said that many of Mr. Gaetz’s allies in Congress such as Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.), and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) supported Mr. McCarthy ahead of the vote to vacate.
“So there were such strong speeches from Jim Jordan and Tom Massie, who were defending McCarthy. ‘He kept his promises. He’s kept his promises to us. We need to keep him.’ That was hard to argue with for me, anyway,” Mr. Roberts said.
He also worried that Mr. Gaetz’s vote to vacate would become a new precedent in Congress, where a few disgruntled Republicans could go across party lines and vote with Democrats to remove a speaker, no matter who gets elected to the position. Allowing a single member of Congress to bring forward a motion to vacate the speaker position is something Mr. McCarthy agreed to when he was nominated in January.
“I feared, you know, what if we got Jim Jordan? You know, hey, our hero, we love him. What if we got a speaker, and then three months later, five of the moderate members decided, well, ‘we don’t really like him, let’s vote him out.'” Mr. Roberts said.
Speaker Johnson Enters the Scene
But after weeks of uncertainty and aborted attempts to run for speaker from congressmen like Mr. Jordan and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House of Representatives unanimously elected a new speaker on Oct. 25—Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), a relatively unknown figure in the lower chamber. Mr. Jordan praised the new speaker, as did former President Donald Trump.
Because of the unanimous vote backing Mr. Johnson’s ascension, many of Mr. Gaetz’s defenders see this as proof of the vote’s success to oust Mr. McCarthy.
Cheryl Stubbs of Okaloosa County thinks that anyone worried Republicans would not elect a new speaker before averting another government shutdown in November was paralyzed by fear.
She believes that Republicans, to their detriment, are driven to compromise these days more than they “seek to win,” and that Speaker Johnson will change that.
Mr. Marquardt agreed and thinks Mr. Johnson is the right man for the job.
“I wasn’t sure who would be speaker … but it really turned out to work,” he said.
Mr. Gaetz has been adamant that his plan from the start was to elect a better speaker to serve the American people.
“In January, I nominated Jim Jordan for speaker. I voted for him and supported him to become speaker until Kevin McCarthy’s allies sabotaged his candidacy. However, I am beyond thrilled that Mike Johnson is leading the House of Representatives as our new speaker,” Mr. Gaetz told The Epoch Times.
A Run for Governor?
However, that hasn’t stopped some in Tallahassee from speculating whether or not the four-term congressman would run for Florida governor in 2026. Nor has it prevented further speculation that Mr. Gaetz’s move to oust Mr. McCarthy was meant to boost his recognition and profile ahead of a potential 2026 gubernatorial run.
Mr. Gaetz has vehemently denied these rumors.
“I have no plans to run for governor. I’m focused on doing the job my constituents elected me to do—fighting against the Biden administration and establishment groupthink that is crushing Americans,” he said.
Mr. Burke acknowledges the unique temperament it takes to run an entire state.
“I think he is very suited for the position he is in and possibly for a Senate run in the future. But it is a very different thing to lead a state,” she said.
“I think, obviously, Ron DeSantis, coming from Congress to the governor’s office, has done an amazing job. I think they’re very different. They have very different leadership styles. And I believe that Matt’s leadership style, you know, he calls himself the firebrand kind of lightning rod.”
Mr. Gaetz is making other moves to boost his profile and appeal to statewide and national voters. On Friday, he announced a 13-minute documentary titled, “Gaveled Out.”
According to a statement from Mr. Gaetz’s office, “The documentary highlights the series of events that led to a handful of patriotic members of the House replacing former Speaker Kevin McCarthy with a constitutional lawyer—Mike Johnson of Louisiana.”
“It’s not just a film, it’s a movement,” Mr. Gaetz said in a post on X.
Portions of the video include news clips from Mr. McCarthy’s tenuous January nomination and Mr. Gaetz’s explanations on the promises Mr. McCarthy allegedly made and broke leading up to the vote to vacate in October.
“I made all of you a promise that we would have a speaker of the House who was more conservative and more honest, and we got our guy,” Mr. Gaetz explained in the video.
Mr. McCarthy, while contemplating whether or not he will seek reelection in 2024, is not keeping quiet either. In a Thursday interview with CNN, the former speaker said that Republicans would benefit “tremendously” if the divisive congressman was expelled from the GOP.
He doesn’t believe Mr. Gaetz and the other seven Republicans voting for his ouster are real conservatives and that Mr. Gaetz is simply trying to distract from the House Ethics Committee investigation.
“It’s driven by Gaetz, and it was all based upon an ethics complaint that happened in the last Congress. He would throw his country away to try to protect himself for what would come out as the truth,” Mr. McCarthy said.
He continued, “If the Ethics Committee never does anything to Gaetz, then Gaetz was successful in stopping probably what rightfully should come to him.”
Mr. McCarthy wants Mr. Gaetz to “face consequences,” especially after calling for a motion to vacate without having majority support from congressional Republicans.
Still, many hold onto hope for Mr. Gaetz. Mr. Roberts, despite receiving angry calls in October, sees him as a “good congressman.”
“He speaks for the people of this district; he speaks for me. When he’s talking about the deficit, budget problems, and the border, you name it on other issues. Yeah, he’s right there,” he said.
Ms. Regan defends the congressman’s approach.
“Yes, Matt is divisive. I would rather call it bold. But if you pay attention to his words, it’s not that he’s speaking out of, you know, self-aggrandizement, like so many people accuse him,” she said.
Ms. Regan continued, “I think that Matt Gaetz is going to have a hard time getting the rest of Florida to understand that he’s not [just] a divisive person, that he really is earnest, and that he really can bring the government of the state together in a cohesive team working fashion rather than constant revolution. But who knows, he might do a little revolution there, too.”
T.J. Muscaro contributed to this report.