The mere whiff of a scandal once unraveled political careers with stunning speed. Not anymore.
Embroiled in a federal sex trafficking investigation, Rep. Matt Gaetz has denied the allegations, rebuffed suggestions that he resign and sent fundraising appeals that portray him as a victim of a “smear campaign.”
During a high-profile appearance Friday night at former President Donald Trump’s Doral golf club in Miami, he vowed, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
“I’m built for the battle and I’m not going anywhere,” Gaetz said. “The smears against me range from distortions of my personal life to wild — and I mean wild — conspiracy theories.”
The third-term congressman joins a growing list of politicians from both parties — almost exclusively men — who are defying the traditional response to controversy. Rather than humbly step back from public life, they barrel ahead, insisting they did nothing wrong and betting that voters will forget alleged misdeeds once the news cycle eventually shifts.
“Clearly this is a new strategy people are employing in crisis response,” said Brent Colburn, a Democratic strategist and veteran of President Barack Obama’s administration. “It is a new chapter in the playbook.”
Gaetz’s political future remains in question and could fully disintegrate, depending on how the federal probe unfolds. But after spending the past several years as one of Trump’s fiercest public defenders, Gaetz’s game plan strongly mirrors the former president’s approach.
After a video emerged in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign of him boasting of grabbing women by the genitals, Trump apologized “if anyone was offended” and dismissed the episode as “locker room talk.” He refused calls by some in his own party to leave the presidential ticket and won the election just weeks later.
As president, Trump would respond to one burgeoning scandal after another by constantly moving ahead, making it harder for the public to linger on one issue for too long, even if that meant stirring up fresh controversy on another topic.
Gaetz is emulating the former president’s approach and appealing to his most loyal supporters. The sponsor of Friday evening’s event also organized the Jan. 6 “March for Trump” rally in Washington that ended with a mob storming the U.S. Capitol in a deadly insurrection.
Gaetz repeated baseless claims that the election was stolen from Trump and suggested for the cheering crowd that he was a “wanted man by the deep state.”
“When you see the anonymous sources and insiders forecasting my demise, know this: They aren’t really coming for me. They’re coming for you,” he said. “I’m just in the way.”
Republican strategist Rick Wilson said, “Trump sees in Matt Gaetz what he wanted in everyone else,” adding that, in many ways, the congressman is “the son he never had.”
But Gaetz isn’t alone in refusing to bend in the face of a political storm.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has steadfastly refused to resign despite several sexual misconduct allegations that spurred calls from some of the most powerful members of his own party for him to step aside.
Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam balked at resigning in 2019, when a picture surfaced from a 1984 medical school yearbook showing one man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam apologized while acknowledging he was the one in the robe. But days later, he denied it was he.
The political fallout eventually calmed and staying put allowed Northam to win praise for handling Virginia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Male politicians seem more likely to employ the tactic. California Rep. Katie Hill resigned in 2019 after admitting to inappropriate relationships with two staffers.
“Men in both parties will do this. They double down, they deny and they hope that it will just sort of pass them by,” said Democratic strategist Nicole Brener-Schmitz. “Women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”
Meredith Conroy, a political science professor at California State University at San Bernardino and author of several books, including “Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency,” said women tend to be more damaged than their male counterparts by scandal.
“Women in general, but in politics too, are perceived as more honest and moral and trustworthy,” Conroy said. “So, when women don’t fit that image, it definitely becomes a point of criticism.”
An exception is Republican Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is also on Friday night’s Doral program and has pursued a push-forward-at-all-costs strategy. Greene was stripped of her committee assignments and forced to apologize on the House floor for her past support of QAnon and other conspiracy theories and for spreading racist tropes.
But she refused to resign, and saw her fundraising spike and her star only brighten in certain conservative circles.
Gaetz, meanwhile, remains largely popular in his heavily pro-Trump, Panhandle district.
“I love Matt Gaetz. His family is wonderful people. He’s a wonderful person. I respect him,” said Gayle Wilson, who moved from Tennessee three years ago to live with her daughter in a neighborhood not far from a home owned by the congressman’s parents in Niceville, Florida. “All this false, negative stuff on him is a flat-out lie.”
But Steve Jacobson, a registered Republican who lives in the nearby town of Crestview, had a much different opinion, saying that Gaetz “makes a big scene but doesn’t do a lot. It’s all about him to gain press for himself and not helping people around here.”
“If he’s showing sexual pictures on his phone as a congressman — a kid does that in high school, and they get expelled — and a guy does that on the floor of Congress, and that’s all right?“ Jacobson said.
Friday’s crowd was far more receptive.
“I am really grateful for someone like him in Congress,” said Jeanne Pankow, who traveled from Nashville for the event at Doral. “They are blackmailing him. It reeks with insincerity. It reeks with a lack of truth and a lack of honor,” she said of other officials and politicians.
Even if pushing forward helps elected leaders weather immediate crises, meanwhile, it doesn’t always leave them with much political standing. Trump, of course, lost last year’s election to Biden and Cuomo finds himself increasingly politically isolated. Northam is term-limited and won’t have to face reelection.
Top Republicans have been conspicuous in failing to speak out in their colleague’s defense. The Floridian’s attention-grabbing style has often antagonized both parties, further suggesting that, though his congressional seat is likely safe, he’s unlikely to accomplish much, even within his own party, outside of Trump’s shadow.
President Bill Clinton used a different strategy to survive being impeached during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, opting for contrition and watching much of the political blame for the proceedings ultimately fall on the GOP-controlled House, allowing him to finish his term in a stronger position. Newt Gingrich resigned the House speakership amid scandal in 1999, but recovered enough to run for president in 2012, winning the South Carolina Republican primary.
“If your goal is simply to maintain your position, it might be an effective strategy,” Colburn said. “If your goal is to have an impact, it’s probably not the way to go.”