So who’s going to be the next governor of Florida?

It might be really early, but Florida political watchers can’t stop speculating now that Matt Gaetz is again getting national attention.

The Florida Governor's Mansion.

The Florida Governor's Mansion. Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The chaos dominating Washington after the ousting of former U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has thrown gasoline on the already ablaze rumor mill around the future occupant of Florida’s Executive Office of the Governor.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz reaching the pinnacle of his political popularity (or notoriety, depending on who you ask) after orchestrating McCarthy’s removal has further stoked murmurings he’s considering a 2026 gubernatorial run – which he has denied. Gov. Ron DeSantis, if he doesn’t win the presidency, will be term limited then. 

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The continued divide between Florida Republicans along the DeSantis/Trump rift also has led to speculation on which politician would have the biggest sway in such a race by wielding a Trump endorsement. After all, it worked for DeSantis himself

Sunshine State political consultants and experts have come to three conclusions: 

  • All of Gaetz’s earned media hits have helped increase his gubernatorial chances significantly. 
  • They expect the field for the 2026 Republican primary for governor to have a lot of candidates. 
  • It is wa-aaa-ay too early to project who will be a front runner.

Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University, said the media circus around Gaetz has generated a massive free focus group for a potential run. 

He also believes Gaetz is playing coy about the possibility of a gubernatorial run. “Members of Congress know that they'd be in a much stronger position to serve as chief executive of the state than to be one of many voices in Washington,” Foreman said.

And he does have significant baggage: “Since the spring of 2021, Mr. Gaetz has been under investigation over allegations he engaged in sexual misconduct and illicit drug use, shared inappropriate images or videos on the House floor, misused state identification records, converted campaign funds to personal use and accepted impermissible gifts under House rules, among other allegations,” as the New York Times recently reported

But Foreman projects that the “Ron vs. Don” rivalry could continue to play out after 2024 at the top of Florida’s 2026 ticket. He thinks influential DeSantis-aligned figures, like Attorney General Ashley Moody and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, could run with the backing of the current governor, while Trump-aligned members of Congress like Byron Donalds could also throw their hat in.

Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini agreed that the field would likely be large, but did not expect it to affect anything beyond a primary election. “We're like a big Italian family. We're fighting now. But we'll all be a family again come Christmas,” he said.

In contrast to a big Republican field, Pedicini predicts the field for Democratic candidates will be much smaller. He argues his party’s 600,000 registered voter-lead over the Democrats, plus the lack of a steady bench will hamstring them. 

“I think they have a hard time finding people to put up, people who want to go through the torturous process of running against the Republican industrial campaign complex here in Florida,” he said.

Longtime Republican strategist turned ‘Never Trump’er Mac Stipanovich agreed Democrats face an uphill battle in fielding competitive candidates, but said their best chance of winning in 2026 may very well be because of Gaetz. That’s if he wins the Republican nomination. 

“Gaetz is even hated by the Republican conference members because he's such a self centered, destructive, performance artist,” Stipanovich said. “The more hated a candidate is, the more likely the partisans of the other party are going to turn out.”

The other catch: 2026 in Florida depends in large part on what happens nationally next year. “It's just extremely hard to judge how all of those factors might come together and produce a specific result without knowing who wins (the White House) in 2024 first,” Stipanovich said.

For now, leaving Gaetz aside, here is an (admittedly) all-too-early list of potential candidates getting buzz for the 2026 gubernatorial race: 

The Republicans

Byron Donalds

While he has downplayed it and redirected attention back to getting Trump elected in 2023, Donalds’ camp is open about him considering a 2026 run for governor.

When asked about the possibility recently, he said, “We'll see what happens,” according to the Naples Daily News, his hometown newspaper. “So have I thought about it? Of course I have. I think about everything, I really do, but you can't time politics. That's the other thing I've learned watching politics the last 16 years … (If) it comes around, I’ll talk to my wife, we’ll pray about it, look at where we are, make a decision and then away we go.”

Thrust into the national spotlight after having his name thrown into the ring during this January’s U.S. Speaker standoff, Donalds came down against removing McCarthy, calling it a distraction. Despite being a Gaetz ally earlier this year, he has since criticized him over the recent Republican dysfunction. 

Such a split could have less to do with actual policy and more to do with the two men’s political aspirations. They would likely fight over a Trump endorsement, as the relationship both Donalds and Gaetz had with DeSantis soured after they endorsed the former president and had public political disagreements with him. 

Donalds – who would be the state’s first Black governor – nonetheless may thread the needle for the state’s Republican political class, possibly being able to tap into Trump’s base in the state while not courting the same political controversy as Gaetz.

Ashley Moody

As Florida’s attorney general, Moody has carried the torch for DeSantis’ “Free State of Florida” agenda in courtrooms across the country: She has sued the Biden Administration several times, including on issues related to higher education, immigration and labor union issues. 

The chief state legal officer has also sided with DeSantis on his controversial suspensions of progressive state attorneys, and in turn has seen several of her policy priorities backed by the governor.

After winning her first term in 2018 by six points against Democratic former state Rep. Sean Shaw, she grew her lead to 21 points in 2022 against Democratic challenger Aramis Ayala, garnering 60% of the vote. Ayala made headlines for refusing to seek the death penalty in murder cases she prosecuted as the elected Orange-Osceola state attorney. 

Jeanette Nuñez

As the current lieutenant governor of Florida, Nuñez is the only one who could possibly take up residence in the Governor’s Mansion before 2027 if DeSantis was elected president.

She has spent over a decade in politics, including eight years in the Florida House and being elected the first Latina lieutenant governor in the state’s history in 2018. In her current role, she has championed many of DeSantis’ culture war policies, including criticizing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at universities. 

Her loyalty could translate into an endorsement from DeSantis. He has spoken glowingly about her when asked about the continuity of his Florida administration if he’s elected president: “Jeanette Nuñez, she’s done a great job. She’s been with us on all these different issues. And so you would see continuity in the Governor’s Office,” he said in a television interview.

Other Republicans:

Mike Waltz - This Green Beret-turned-congressman has reportedly been considering a 2026 gubernatorial run. The Volusia County Republican backed McCarthy both when he was first selected as Speaker and more recently during his ouster, setting himself up as a lawmaker with a different record than both Donalds and Gaetz.

Jimmy Patronis - Florida’s chief financial officer has been a close ally to DeSantis. He has backed the governor’s prohibition on the Florida Retirement System from environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing, as well as his idea to build a prison next to Walt Disney World. With his own last 19-point win, Patronis could leverage his sphere of influence into a run.

Wilton Simpson - The most recent Republican addition to the Florida Cabinet, Simpson – the state’s agriculture commissioner – carries political clout outside DeSantis’ orbit. As the Florida Senate president in 2020-22, he was one of the strongest fundraisers in Florida politics. He carried that knack into his successful 2022 statewide bid. Expect him to be able to whip up the cash to mount a competitive 2026 run if he chooses.

The Democrats

Nikki Fried 

The only Democrat elected to statewide political office (as commissioner of agriculture, 2019-23) in the DeSantis era, Fried seems to have positioned herself to try again after her failed 2022 gubernatorial run. 

As the current chair of the Florida Democratic Party, Fried could wield that bully pulpit to unite the party around her in 2026. She’s consolidated members of the Charlie Crist faction into her staff and has worked to give people more face time than her predecessors.

Rifts still exist, however, that could keep her from moonwalking to a party nomination if she decides to run. 

For example, former state Sen. Annette Taddeo was competitive in the party chair race, winning the endorsements of many legislative and local elected officials. If Fried doesn’t consolidate factions, those battle lines could reemerge in a primary around a different candidate.

Lauren Book

The current Senate Democratic leader was one of the several state legislators to back Taddeo over Fried for party chair. She was arrested with Fried at an abortion rights protest earlier this year, keeping her in the spotlight on one of the issues that’s most dear to Democratic voters.

The daughter of veteran lobbyist Ron Book, the senator has exhibited astronomical fundraising prowess by amassing millions in defense of her seat last cycle. She also has demonstrated a knack for bipartisan cooperation, passing legislation such as a cyber sex crime bill that overcame the Republican-dominated state government.  

Book would have the resume, money and name ID to mount a competitive run for governor. With her political standing, some Republican insiders might even privately view her as a better alternative to a candidate like Gaetz.

Other Democrats:

Donna Deegan - During a time when Florida Democrats are losing, Deegan notched a major victory when she was elected Jacksonville’s new mayor earlier this year. Facing a Republican-controlled city council who will oppose her at every turn, Deegan could look to leverage her growing profile to move to greener pastures in Tallahassee.

Anna Eskamani - Eskamani is hands-down the most recognizable figure in the Florida Democrats’ progressive wing. She is also one of the most adversarial to Republican legislators. On the other hand, several compelling local seats – like mayor of Orlando – could keep her from jumping to a statewide race. Eskamani is term limited in 2026. 

Contact Tristan Wood at twood@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on X: @TristanDWood

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