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Panhandle Rep. Matt Gaetz is in the vortex of a U.S. House drama, but it’s not his first risky move

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Panhandle Rep. Matt Gaetz is in the vortex of a U.S. House drama, but it’s not his first risky move

Oct 03, 2023 | 10:29 am ET
By Mitch Perry
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Panhandle Rep. Matt Gaetz is in the vortex of a U.S. House drama, but it’s not his first risky move
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Congressman Matt Gaetz speaking at an "An Address to Young Americans" event, featuring President Donald Trump, hosted by Students for Trump and Turning Point Action at Dream City Church in Phoenix, Ariz., June 2020. Credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the 41-year-old conservative Congressman in Florida who’s put pressure on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership, has long been a hard-charging politician in Washington, D.C. who has faced risky moves and allegations, though he has easily maintained his seat in Congress.

This week, Gaetz is pushing to a vote on ousting his political nemesis, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, by using a rarely utilized congressional procedure — a so-called “motion to vacate” that has dominated the news cycle.

But the move could backfire, or not.

“If he’s just trying to continue being a congressman from the Pensacola area, then I don’t know that there’s a whole of lot of risk, because his base there really seems to like him,” says University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. “Perhaps there’s a little more risk if he’s trying to go to a higher office at some point.”

In the political arena in the Panhandle, Gaetz is rumored to be considering a run for Florida governor in 2026.  And his father, former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, announced on Monday that he’s a candidate for a state Senate seat next year.

Gaetz has served in public office representing Northwest Florida for the past 14 years, starting as a 26-year-old in the Florida House of Representatives in 2010, when he won a special election. He served there until 2016, when he entered the race for the open Congressional District 1 seat.

Gaetz crushed his Democratic opponents in every congressional election he’s been in. He defeated Steven Specht by 38 points in 2016; Jennifer Zimmerman by 34 points in 2018; Phil Ehr by 32 points in 2020; and Rebekah Jones by more than 35 points last November. The seat has been ranked as the most conservative leaning in Florida, according to the Cook Political Report.

But Jewett says a potentially bigger pitfall for Gaetz is alienating himself further with his Republican House caucus members.

“It seems pretty clear that he has ticked off a large number of Republicans in the House, not to mention Democrats, and that’s a political risk as well,” says Jewett.  “If he’s trying to be an effective House member to accomplish policy goals, then there’s a fine line between ‘being the squeaky wheel that gets the grease’ meaning okay, you’ve caused enough problems that you can actually affect policies and get some things that you want, and then going so far out there that you just tick everybody off, including most of your colleagues, and they sort of banish you to the political wilderness and you’re just not effective and you don’t get anything done.”

In fact, Fox News reported over the weekend that some House Republican members are preparing to expel Gaetz if an ethics committee report looking into public allegations of misconduct finds him guilty.

The U.S. House Ethics Committee has been investigating Gaetz regarding allegations that he may have engaged in sexual misconduct and/or illicit drug use, shared inappropriate campaign images or videos on the House floor, misused state identification records, converted campaign funds to personal use, and/or accepted a bribe, improper gratuity, or impermissible gift, according to an April 9, 2021 statement from that committee.

A spokesperson for the House Ethics Committee responded to an inquiry about the Gaetz investigation with a terse “no comment.”

It would require two/thirds of the House of Representatives to expel Gaetz, according to the U.S. Constitution.

The Fox News story Sunday that raised questions about expelling Gaetz rankled Pinellas County freshman Republican House member Anna Paulina Luna, an ally of Gaetz.

“TO be clear: It is UNETHICAL to threaten to expel a member for following and using House rules that the ENTIRE conference agreed too,” Luna wrote on X on Sunday. “This game works both ways just FYI to any MEMBER who thinks they can blackmail a legislator into not legislating.”

The U.S. Justice Department had been investigating Gaetz regarding allegations that he was part of a scheme that led to the sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl, but his attorneys announced in February that the DOJ had informed them that the investigation had concluded without any charges being brought against him, CNN reported earlier this year.

What led to the Speaker drama?

The voters in his western Panhandle district support Gaetz’ actions when it comes to spending, says Escambia Republican Committee executive director John Roberts.

Panhandle Rep. Matt Gaetz is in the vortex of a U.S. House drama, but it’s not his first risky move
Matt Gaetz speaking in Largo, Florida in July 2021 (Photo credit: Mitch Perry)

“Matt Gaetz is very popular up here, and there is an enormous amount of frustration with the $33 trillion debt and the huge deficit and the lack of any cooperation with the opposition to try to deal with this,” says Roberts. “So I can say that the congressman certainly reflects that frustration level that people up here do have with just the nonsense in fiscal policy that the government’s doing.”

Roberts says that while he supports Gaetz in his efforts, he understands why other Republicans can’t act the same way, acknowledging that “not every district is like Northwest Florida.”

On the day that Gaetz announced his candidacy for Congress in 2016, he also announced his support for Donald Trump for president, and he’s been on Team-MAGA ever since.

Gaetz’ themes

One of the themes of Gaetz work in both the Florida and U.S. House has been his advocacy for cannabis.

Panhandle Rep. Matt Gaetz is in the vortex of a U.S. House drama, but it’s not his first risky move
Matt Gaetz supporters outside of Conservative Grounds coffee house in Largo, Florida in July 2021 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

Gaetz sponsored the House version of the 2014 legislation that became the state’s first marijuana law. He was dubbed “the father of marijuana in Florida” by Orlando attorney and Democratic fundraiser John Morgan in January 2019, after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a directive to end a ban on smokeable marijuana in the state. He’s kept up those efforts in Washington, most recently introducing an amendment to ban cannabis testing for members of the military.

He’s also been among the breed of young Republicans in Congress who oppose military interventions.

In April, Gaetz was part of a coalition of hard-right conservatives who joined with progressives such as Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar on a War Powers resolution to direct President Joe Biden to remove U.S. forces from Somalia (it went down to defeat).

And over the weekend, it was the opposition to funding Ukraine that became a crucial issue in the negotiations to keep the government running. The “continuing resolution” that was passed over the weekend does not include any funding for Ukraine. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Gaetz accused McCarthy of “cutting a side deal to bring Ukraine legislation” with President Biden.

One of Gaetz’ most vociferous critics is Mac Stipanovich, the longtime Tallahassee Republican operative who left the party and became an independent in reaction to Trump’s takeover of the GOP. He says in taking on McCarthy, Gaetz has “made a big mistake.”

“I was really kind of pleased the way things happened when McCarthy called his bluff,” Stipanovich says. That was a reference to McCarthy saying “bring it on” on CBS Sunday morning after Gaetz said that he would introduce a procedure to remove McCarthy.

“The only way a bully survives (meaning Gaetz) is that no one who’s tough enough to fight, fights back. And so it appears that folks are fighting back against Matt Gaetz now,” Stipanovich said.

And Stipanovich says that while Gaetz’ star may be ascendant now, he doesn’t think it will help him if he does decide to run for governor in 2026.

“I may be projecting my own feelings here, but you’ve got a guy…who’s under an ethics investigation in the House.” Stipanovich said. “Who wanted to shut down the government. Who wants to cut off aid to Ukraine in which they’re fighting and dying in a cause in which we have a huge stake, and it will be interesting to see after eight years of Ron DeSantis if Floridians, even Republicans, who will have plenty of choices, will want to choose more division. More hatred. More acrimony. More chaos. I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”

Clarification: The phrase “motion to vacate” in the story is now correct, but it had been transposed originally.