Matt Gaetz is a superstar right now, but fame is fleeting in Washington and usually non-transferable for Florida politicians.
Having toppled House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Gaetz is now considered a candidate for governor in 2026. He can count on rock star receptions at any GOP gathering he attends over the next couple of years, and Gaetz can probably raise trainloads of campaign cash off of his celebrity status – not to mention a book deal and speaking fees apart from political functions.
Down home, Gaetz is probably the safest Panhandle politician since Robert L.F. Sikes, the untouchable “he coon” who held the same congressional seat from 1945 to 1979.
But a statewide race in 2026 still seems a bit premature. And a lot of what has endeared Gaetz to the most Trumpified wing of the GOP has also made him a political pariah to everybody else.
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He became a national figure in less than six years, more as a bomb-throwing guest on cable TV shout shows than as a legislative craftsman. Before his 2016 election to Congress, Gaetz was a state legislator best known for being the Senate president’s son.
Every Congress has a Matt Gaetz or two, on the far left and right. Competing with the likes of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert for Fox News face time and social media clicks, the congressman from Niceville does not play nicely with others.
Even fellow Republicans in the House who share the GOP mantra that Washington is broken resent his self-promoting penchant for busting things up some more, rather than seeking solutions.
Even as Gaetz pursued McCarthy last week, there was a motion to expel him from the House Republican caucus. That got nowhere, but the House Ethics Committee has an investigation going (the Department of Justice declined to prosecute last February) and Gaetz probably has fewer friends than Sen. Bob Menendez under the Capitol dome.
If either party had a majority of 20 or 30 seats, the wild-eyed extremists could be tolerated by the grown-ups, not heeded. But with fewer than a half-dozen Republicans in his majority, McCarthy had to take Gaetz and his ilk seriously. The clock started ticking on McCarthy’s time as speaker when he agreed to let just one member – rather than a House leader or caucus of either party – initiate a motion to oust him.
At Gaetz’s behest, the House voted 216-210 to declare the speaker’s office vacant. That paralyzes the House until members can elect a new speaker, which isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Who’ll want to be speaker, knowing Gaetz can do the same thing to him, or her, the next time he wants more attention from talk radio hosts and Fox commentators? How can the next speaker negotiate budget deals with the White House and the Senate, knowing anything they do to keep the government open can be Article One in a removal resolution?
Trying to appease Gaetz and his Gang of Eight, McCarthy agreed to a series of pointless, purely partisan impeachment hearings. With a rudderless House, who’s going to harass Joe Biden now? How can the next speaker manage appropriations for border security and Ukraine aid, knowing all decisions are subject to the whims of House members more interested in obstructing than doing anything?
Gaetz has created chaos – while making a name for himself. No one can predict Florida’s political landscape two years out, but – with the exception of Gov. Jeb Bush – the state has not rewarded fame at the polls.
Govs. Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles, Rick Scott and Charlie Crist all beat far better-known candidates in their first primaries. Gov. Ron DeSantis was a fairly obscure member of the House when he beat a statewide-elected Cabinet member in 2018, mainly on the strength of Donald Trump’s endorsement.
Even if Republicans strengthen their hold on Florida, it would be hard for a congressman from the far Panhandle to remain a household name for two-plus years – even if his GOP colleagues liked him. It’s significant that all the other Florida Republicans in the House voted to keep McCarthy in the chair, and the party sent Gaetz to a podium on the Democratic side of the House to make his ouster argument.
Gaetz accomplished what didn’t need to be done, badly split the Republican Party to do it, and crippled the government for an unknown period. That’s not a list of achievements for a statewide candidate to brag about.
Bill Cotterell is a retired capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.