© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Matt Gaetz Is The Only Happy Republican In Congress

Matt Gaetz
Matt Gaetz speaks at the Republican Party of Florida’s 2023 Freedom Summit in Kissimmee, Fla. Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo

To hear Rep. Matt Gaetz tell it, everything is going according to plan.

Yes, Kevin McCarthy is now retiring early and House Republicans will have to contend with an even smaller majority. And sure, they’re struggling to pass their own spending bills as another government shutdown deadline approaches. Speaker Mike Johnson, only two months into the job, has repeatedly pulled legislation from the floor amid policy disputes between his members. Personal feuds abound, too. But Gaetz, the Florida Republican who bears a great deal of responsibility for these circumstances, doesn’t appear concerned.

Departing Republicans? Gaetz wants to replace them with candidates who are sufficiently “America first.” The funding deadline? Gaetz is fine with shutting down the government if it means gaining leverage over President Joe Biden in immigration negotiations. And as for Gaetz’s Republican colleagues who are angry with him for triggering McCarthy’s ouster in October? No matter. Onstage in Phoenix last weekend, Gaetz knew he had the patriots of AmericaFest, the annual conference hosted by the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, in his corner.

“There is one rare area of agreement,” he told attendees. “Democrats and a lot of Republicans in Washington don’t like me very much.”

A woman in the crowd called back: “We love you, Matt!”

This was Matt Gaetz in his element; he walked onstage to bone-rattling electronic dance music, searing spotlights and a crowd of extremely online right-wing superfans. His focus between now and January 2025, he told the audience, is to ready congressional Republicans for a second Trump administration — and build a conference that will unflinchingly fight for Trump’s priorities. He’s confident he can see that vision to fruition.

“Maybe I’m a little rough around the edges,” Gaetz said. “But I win.”

Back in Washington, though, Gaetz’s colleagues don’t feel like they’re winning. Republican lawmakers are announcing their retirements and airing frustrations about a dysfunctional House. The party is staring down the possibility of a one-seat majority. Many Republicans are furious with Gaetz, and he’s not in the new speaker’s inner circle.

As 2023 closes, his position in his conference appears just as uncertain as his party’s ability to govern. But talking with Republicans inside and outside D.C., it’s clear Gaetz can’t be shunted aside in such a tenuous House majority — and even clearer that the Florida Republican’s real sphere of influence lies far beyond the Beltway.

Many of Gaetz’s GOP colleagues openly lament the month they spent bitterly fighting over the speakership this fall.

“There’s a different speaker in the exact same room, with all the same circumstances facing him,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican who opposed Gaetz’s move to depose McCarthy at the time. “We’ve accomplished a lot less than we otherwise would have. Good on us.”

Rep. Gary Palmer, a member of House GOP leadership, didn’t criticize Gaetz directly, but raised concerns about what voters expect from House GOP leaders.

Matt Gaetz
Gaetz takes a photo with a supporter. Nathan Howard/AP Photo

“A big fear of mine is that the average Joe is more focused on the celebrity type than they are the deliberative type, and this is a deliberative body,” Palmer said.

First elected in 2016 to represent a conservative Florida Panhandle district, Gaetz made it clear early on that he didn’t plan to rely on the traditional levers of power. Gaetz became a constant presence on television. He learned how to do his own makeup. He built his online following and a small donor base.

For a brief window during his first term, Republicans saw Gaetz as quirky but still a team player. After all, Gaetz may have had a libertarian streak during his time in the Florida state legislature, but he was deeply connected with the Republican establishment. He enthusiastically endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for president in 2015, and Gaetz’s father, Don Gaetz, served as president of the Florida state senate. In Congress, Gaetz worked with young members of the House GOP campaign arm to help candidates improve their use of social media. But it wasn’t long before he also emerged as one of Trump’s most ardent defenders.

“He was a little garish, even back then, but nobody thought he was a bomb-thrower or anything at that point,” a former House Republican lawmaker who overlapped with Gaetz told NOTUS. “What happened was the same thing that happened to Elise Stefanik. When they started pushing the Trump narrative, their social media likes went through the roof. Their requests to be on cable news went through the roof. And their fundraising increased.”

Gaetz has only doubled down on that approach in the years since. He installed a TV studio in his father’s Florida home for media appearances, and he’s dedicated part of his D.C. office to recording his podcast. (He recently interviewed Infowars host and Jan. 6 participant Owen Shroyer about his time in prison.) Last month, Gaetz’s office released a 13-minute documentary about the speakership fight.

Florida political insiders have speculated he’s interested in using his media platform outside the House, potentially in a run for governor. He denies this: “I’m not running for governor,” Gaetz told NOTUS. “It’s not something I’m planning on or in any way preparing for. It’s not part of my focus.”

House Republicans were outraged when Gaetz’s campaign sent fundraising pitches during McCarthy’s removal. His critics argue he’s beholden to the fringes. “His special interest is, ‘If I say something inflammatory enough, I can get 1,000 more people to send me $50,’” Rep. David Schweikert, an Arizona Republican, said in October.

It’s still fresh in their minds. One GOP lawmaker, when asked recently what Gaetz gained from the debacle, speculated he must have “raised a lot of money.” Asked on his way to vote one day in December if fundraising was part of his motivation, an incredulous look flashed across Gaetz’s face. “I’m the only Republican in Congress who doesn’t take lobbyist or PAC money,” he responded. “I’m proud of how I do fundraising.” Gaetz’s office didn’t agree to requests for a more substantial interview for this story, but his spokesman provided a statement: “I came to Congress to make change, not friends.”

Gaetz has plenty of enemies. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a Florida Republican who backed McCarthy, offered a blunt assessment: “Matt Gaetz is about Matt Gaetz,” he said. “Not about Florida, not about the country.”

Rep. Byron Donalds, a conservative from Florida who is friendly with Gaetz and speaks to him often, said the situation is still sometimes tense within the conference, “but we’re adults.” Gaetz recently spoke in a GOP meeting about government surveillance, and Republicans in the room listened without shouting him down as some did during the speakership fight, Donalds said. But there are always reminders of the conflict. McCarthy was in line behind Gaetz to speak at the microphones; Donalds recalled joking to a couple of other members about whether Gaetz would file an ethics complaint if McCarthy hit him in the ribs.

One of Gaetz’s fiercest critics, Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican and close ally of McCarthy, argued Gaetz “has been more of a social media influencer than an actual member of Congress.”

“Matt is one of the smartest guys up here,” he added, “which makes it even more disappointing.”

Social media stars have a lot of power in today’s Republican Party, though. AmericaFest, where students, older adults and young families with toddlers in tow rubbed shoulders with a who’s who of Trump-adjacent influencers, showed the reach of the online right-wing media ecosystem. Republicans watched Roger Stone record a live podcast, enjoyed Benny Johnson’s curated slideshow of conservative memes, and laughed at footage of Jan. 6 rioters milling about the Capitol. Speakers shared thoughts on Christian theology, insisted the 2020 election was stolen, and swore by the healing power of supplements for sale and the wisdom of investing in gold.

Many attendees thought Gaetz “was perfectly justified” in moving to end McCarthy’s speakership, as Blake Marnell, the minor Republican celebrity known for wearing a brick-patterned suit to Trump rallies, told NOTUS. The monthlong legislative standstill wasn’t concerning to Marnell. “There wasn’t anything that was actually so urgent that it had to be done,” he said.

“The ones that are angry are useless Republicans,” Aleae Pennette, a Gaetz fan from Texas, said of GOP pushback to his tactics. “They’re probably more Democrats. They just want things to go as it always has gone.”

Congress McCarthy
Then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is swarmed by reporters after Gaetz forced a vote on his removal. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Indeed, where most House Republicans see chaos and dysfunction, Gaetz and his supporters see a victory — simply because he disrupted the status quo. During Trump’s first term, Gaetz said in his speech, “we saw too much potential unrealized because we had to deal with the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.”

“Now, we’ve got a new generation of conservative leaders, and we’ve shown the capability to flex,” he continued.

Johnson has the gavel now, but Gaetz’s standing is far from secure. He is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for allegations that include sexual misconduct, improper use of campaign funds, and accepting a bribe, among other claims — all of which he denies.

Gaetz also faces strained relationships with his colleagues for the foreseeable future. “Most of them are seen as outcasts,” Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon said of the Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy alongside Gaetz. “Most of the conference won’t do anything with them.”

They’ll have to cooperate nonetheless if they want to pass any of their priorities over Democratic opposition: McCarthy’s retirement, the impending special election to replace expelled Rep. George Santos and GOP Rep. Bill Johnson’s upcoming departure to serve as president of Youngstown State University could bring Republicans’ wiggle room on bills down to a mere two votes.

“It was difficult with three,” said Rep. Kevin Hern, an Oklahoma Republican. “We can only surmise it’s going to be more difficult with two or one. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said she’s worried the conference will struggle as its numbers dwindle. “When you go from ousting a speaker and then expelling another Republican member of the conference … there hasn’t been much thought into, basically, strategy,” she said.

A wave of GOP retirement announcements is also hurting morale and the party’s chances of keeping the majority in November.

Gaetz found the bright side during a December episode of his podcast. “There is an establishment exodus from the United States Republican conference, and it’s my hope that we backfill these establishment, lobbyist-drawn entities with folks who are willing to fight for the America-first agenda.”

Asked about the shrinking House GOP majority and Gaetz’s role in it, Donalds, the Florida Republican, got philosophical.

“One thing I know is that we are all vapors in time,” he said. “And we’re going to leave, and somebody else is going to replace us, and this whole thing will move on like we never even existed. That goes for me, it goes for Matt, and it goes for everybody else.”

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS. Claire Heddles and John T. Seward are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.