Florida Politics’ 2023 Politician of the Year: Matt Gaetz (no really!)
Matt Gaetz. Image via AP.

Matt Gaetz
His Panhandle constituents seem as enthusiastic about his future as ever and buzz increasingly grows Gaetz will enter the next election cycle as a frontrunner for Florida Governor.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz arrived in Congress alongside President Donald Trump after November 2016, the election that changed everything. Since his arrival in Congress, he’s irritated leadership, affixed himself to cable news cameras and basked in the respective adoration or scorn of political junkies across the country. But both his notoriety and effectiveness reached new heights in 2023, as he won a high-stakes battle for the U.S. House’s soul.

The Fort Walton Beach Republican secured his place in American history on Oct. 3 with a motion to vacate the office of Speaker of the House, ejecting Kevin McCarthy from one of the most powerful offices in federal government. The act seemed alternately shocking and inevitable based on rules Gaetz himself had loudly insisted upon instating when McCarthy was first voted into the Speaker’s chair. He demanded any one member retain the ability to hold a Speaker hostage, then showed an eagerness to, figuratively, shoot him.

The ouster served as the climax in a year of high drama for Gaetz, and demonstrated what an enormous shift in stature the Florida Republican had achieved. He started the year still under the threat of a federal investigation, but closed it as the face of modern Republican politics.

The 41-year-old Representative may best be known in the annals of time as McCarthy’s greatest intra-party nemesis. But his triumphs didn’t stop with sending the former Speaker back to Bakersfield. Gaetz played point in rallying support for Trump’s presidential campaign, even as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launched his own run on the promise of turning the page on the Trump era. Indeed, any major news story in the House this year, whether it was the passing of an omnibus spending bill, the opening of an impeachment hearing on President Joe Biden or the scrutinizing of what the federal government knows about UFOs, Gaetz always seemed to be somewhere close to the news.

How influential is Gaetz in the House? Well, in many ways, he’s more isolated than ever. He’s been mocked on Saturday Night Live, derided by members of his own caucus and state delegation, and remains the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation. It’s unclear if Gaetz’s big year made him a single friend in Washington, and as a rule, camaraderie translates into power in Congress.

But then again, who cares? His Panhandle constituents seem as enthusiastic about his future as ever. Buzz increasingly grows Gaetz will enter the next election cycle as a front-runner for Florida Governor. And if polls at the close of 2023 bear out, Trump may yet find his way back into the Oval Office, likely grateful to one of his most loyal foot soldiers on the Hill. Whatever animosity the Congressman cultivated, he seems as politically potent as ever. That makes him — and now’s a good time to stop and take a deep breath — the indisputable Florida Politics Politician of the Year.

Embrace the obstruction

Yes, many reading this will reflexively recoil at the selection. But the truth is Gaetz stands on a small island of Florida politicians who ended the year in better shape than they started. Who else should even be considered? A presidential candidate whose favored super PAC imploded like a poorly planned Twitter Space? Maybe one who spent as many days in court as in New Hampshire and closed the year uncertain he can appear on ballots in all 50 states?

No, the more consideration the question is given, the more clear it is Gaetz, love him or loathe him, who set out ambitious goals this year and realized them. He made the most memorable goal clear before the new Congress even convened in January.

The Congressman was among those within the new Republican majority demanding a leader besides McCarthy for the closely divided chamber. “I’m ready to vote all night, all week, all month, and never for that person,” Gaetz said at the time. 

His fight with McCarthy goes back years. The Panhandle Republican arrived in Washington embracing both Trump’s America First agenda and his bombastic style. That included the “drain the swamp” message that served in many ways as the core of the anti-elitist movement. But that also put him at odds with a corporate wing of the party trading horses with special interest donations in mind. While McCarthy established himself as a party leader based on his ability to raise massive corporate donations, Gaetz eschewed such schmoozing. In 2020, he announced at a CPAC conference he would reject any political action committee donations, and instead pursued a small-dollar strategy.

That may be an easy position to hold while representing the safest GOP seat in Florida. But that position also let Gaetz spend the Midterms rallying the faithful with on-the-ground campaigning around the country and through rabble-rousing appearances on cable television, not at small fundraisers with the wealthiest GOP supporters. Still, when Republicans won a House majority last year, it was McCarthy and his closest allies who moved into leadership offices as Gaetz remained a rank member with little personal power.

Thanks to recalcitrance by Gaetz and a select group he called the Patriot 20, it took 15 ballots to give McCarthy the gavel and open the 118th Congress. Gaetz kept a promise and never did vote for McCarthy, ultimately agreeing only to vote “present” in order for the House to complete the selection of a Speaker. But the holdouts secured a number of shifts in rules intended to empower individual members.

“Members of Congress, Speakers, they come and go,” Gaetz later told Fox News. “But when rules are established, they often can be enduring.”

The demand that would be the most important as the year progressed would be returning the threshold for a motion to vacate to a single member, as it was when Thomas Jefferson served as Speaker and until Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi increased the threshold required — her way of staving off a revolt in a closely divided House.

Then in October, Gaetz pulled off such a coup. He called for McCarthy’s ouster, and was joined by seven other Republicans and the entire Democratic caucus. Faster than nearly anyone anticipated, he ejected the most powerful Congressman, a man third in line for the presidency. He took the drastic measure, he said, over frustration at the never-ending funding of the government by continuing resolution. Indeed, the House in short order started passing individual budget resolutions. In early 2024, the resolve of new Speaker Mike Johnson will be tested, but in votes spread over months rather than on a single date with a government resolution hanging.

Colleagues questioned the merits of Gaetz’s mission to hurl the House into chaos.

“Rep. Gaetz’s ‘concern’ for the American people is hollow,” said U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, a Jacksonville Republican. “He claims to support cutting spending and securing our southern border, yet last week voted down a bill to cut non-defense discretionary spending by 30% and secure our border.”

But the way Gaetz tells it, he had little choice but to force McCarthy out.

“Powerful people never give it away unless you take it,” he told a hometown crowd in late October.

Turnaround

The success Gaetz enjoyed in his endeavors seems all the more remarkable considering his precarious position in the relatively recent past. It was only in 2021 when The New York Times first broke news that Gaetz was the target of a federal investigation for trafficking a teenager across state lines for sex. Former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, described in media at the time as Gaetz’s “wingman,” faced a bevy of criminal accusations, and negotiated a plea deal with federal prosecutors, seemingly in exchange for evidence against other public officials.

“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Greenberg attorney Fritz Scheller teased to media at the time.

That would fuel more than a year of speculation about whether Gaetz would be indicted. Allies in Congress eagerly disavowed Gaetz and whispers about his libertine bachelor lifestyle turned into open speculation about potential criminality. But over the course of 2022, those anxious to see the political guillotine fall on Gaetz were met with repeated disappointment. Gaetz, who always maintained his innocence, publicly alleged accusations stemmed from a blackmail plot. Indeed, Pensacola businessman Stephen Alford in December 2022 pled guilty to wire fraud in connection with a potential shakedown of Gaetz’s entire family.

At the beginning of the year, Gaetz still technically remained under the cloud of investigation, but no longer seemed a disgraced man walking. He also publicly signaled the retirement of his wild 20s (and 30s) and married Ginger Luckey. In February, he seemed to completely shake the specter of criminal investigation, with the Department of Justice telling the Congressman he was no longer the target of a sex trafficking investigation. In September, the Federal Elections Commission tossed a complaint against Gaetz regarding whether he wrongly used campaign contributions to cover his legal defenses.

Of course, the House Ethics Committee has fewer concerns about criminality than poor behavior, and it remains possible the Panhandle figure could face sanctions in Congress. McCarthy repeatedly suggested to reporters in Washington that the fear of losing his House seat served as the real motivation behind Gaetz’s hatred of his leadership.

“If the Ethics Committee never does anything to Gaetz, then Gaetz was successful in stopping what probably should rightfully come to him,” McCarthy told CNN in November.

The House this year expelled U.S. Rep. George Santos after the Ethics Committee reported the New York Congressman had misused campaign dollars for personal gain, and did not wait for the courts to formally charge the Congressman of a crime. A similar fate may yet await Gaetz. But if the House ever votes to eject him, McCarthy won’t get to push the button. The California Republican submitted his resignation effective at the end of 2023.

Supported at home

Gaetz may have enemies in his caucus and beyond, but he remains supported at home, according to those closely involved in politics in the Panhandle.

“If anything, Congressman Gaetz’s actions over the last several months has increased his support,” said Patty Burke, president of Gulf Coast Patriots in Santa Rosa County. “District 1 voters understand that our federal legislators are adding to the national debt at an unsustainable rate. We understand the numerous detrimental effects of an ‘open border.’

“There are many other issues that some of the Republicans, all of the Democrats, the Biden Administration, the media and big tech have promoted causing the destruction of the economy and Americans’ way of life.”

Locals say they still owe plenty to Gaetz for securing funding for local military bases. And the Gaetz name, thanks both to the Congressman and his father and former Senate president Don Gaetz, remains sterling in the region. Even if he doesn’t care to play with special interest groups, he remains a major draw to gatherings in the state and beyond, from speaking regularly at CPAC to sharing the stage at the Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit, given a longer speaking slot than some candidates for President.

Speaking of that critical 2024 race, with two Florida candidates on the ballot, the question in many GOP circles isn’t so much who Sunshine State Republicans support for President but whether they back Trump or DeSantis. Gaetz came out early in support of the former President. That proved quite a statement considering Gaetz headed the Governor’s transition team in 2018 and before that was tied at the hip to DeSantis, then a fellow Congressman. But Gaetz proved to be a trendsetter. At this point, about three quarters of Republicans in the Florida congressional delegation have joined Team Trump. At the Sunshine Summit, he celebrated bringing many state lawmakers into the list of endorsers.

“There’s a certain energy that you get when you’re on Team Trump, and a few folks are feeling it for the first time,” Gaetz said. “It’s a great thing.”

Meanwhile, Gaetz remains one of the most loyal defenders of Trump in the halls of Congress. He sits on the House Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, where he has categorized many of the Biden administration’s actions as retribution against Trump or outright election interference. He’s offered the same treatment to members of the FBI for actions taken even while Trump remained in the White House. At a House Judiciary Committee in August, he pushed for a federal probe of a Georgia investigation where prosecutors say Trump conspired to illegally influence the certification of the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, Gaetz has become the face on the Hill of an America First foreign policy, pushing against further funding support for Ukraine. But he’s also as ardent a supporter of Israel as anyone in the delegation, ensuring his belief in regional spheres of influence doesn’t cause problems with any key constituencies in Florida — any part of Florida. And increasingly, even on issues where Gaetz’s worldview once violated Republican orthodoxy, he increasingly speaks for the MAGA base of the party. He’s a pro-cannabis lawmaker who defends the rights of Jan. 6 defendants, an Armed Services Committee member whose foreign policies hue closer to Trump’s isolationism than the George W. Bush neo-conservatism of yore. Heck, even the way he navigated a sex scandal provided a model for other politicians like Christian and Bridget Ziegler to follow, albeit with markedly less success.

And there’s a growing sense that Gaetz’s next big race won’t be in the Panhandle. After winning re-election in 2022 with 68% of the vote over well-funded Democrat Rebekah Jones, few expect him to face any serious electoral obstacles himself in 2024; it’s likely he spends more time campaigning alongside Trump in the presidential race. Should Trump win, a space may await him in the Republican administration, but most expect Gaetz has his eye on another job.

DeSantis won’t be able to seek re-election in 2028 due to term limits, and the silent Primary is already underway. Likely Republicans in waiting include U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, First Lady Casey DeSantis and the entire Florida Cabinet. Yet none boast the small-donor base, media comfort level or years-long profile of Gaetz. If anything, many analysts anticipate a crowded GOP field will help Gaetz, the same way a fractured field handed Trump the nomination in 2016 as his own troops remained unwavering and loyal.

When people discuss Gaetz’s political ups and downs, phrases like “live by the sword, die by the sword” tend to seep into conversation. A candidate with such a personally and politically volatile history could set the political world on fire with a statewide run, or he could self-destruct.

Either way, he’s certain to leave his mark, as he undeniably did in 2023.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


9 comments

  • Michael K

    December 27, 2023 at 2:06 pm

    The least productive US Congress in the modern era. Little Matty throws firebombs but does nothing else. Can’t wait to hear McCarthys take on the Gaetz ethics investigation.

  • Claire

    December 27, 2023 at 4:30 pm

    You’re a vile one, Mr. Gaetz
    You have termites in your soul
    You have all the creepy habits
    Of a lovesick pedophile
    Mr. Gaetz…
    You’re a foul one, Mr. Gaetz
    Ethics you have none
    I wouldn’t trust you with a 17-and-a-half year-old…

    • Cindy L.W.

      December 27, 2023 at 6:17 pm

      😂😂😂😂😂😂

    • Tom

      December 27, 2023 at 8:47 pm

      Yeah I can’t top this one.
      LMFAO

  • It's Complicated

    December 28, 2023 at 10:54 am

    This is a truly weird period in U.S. political history, particularly at the Federal level.

    The GOP Primary for the 2026 (NOT 2028) race for the next Florida Governor will likely be won by plurality, because each of the candidates have their own political machines and following. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the leading Democrats in that race.

    • Stu

      December 28, 2023 at 8:39 pm

      Every legislative/Gubernatorial race in Florida is won by a plurality. It has nothing to do with which candidates are in the race. It doesn’t matter who the democrats pick because that person will lose.

  • Don't Say FLA

    December 28, 2023 at 10:53 pm

    Trump isn’t going to be happy about another loss in the Whatever Of The Year contest department.

    First Trump was cut to the bone by Taylor Swift’s win, and now this here award, this is nothing more than rubbing salt into Trump’s wound.

    Trump lost to Matt Gaetz, lolololol

  • Patti

    January 3, 2024 at 6:06 pm

    Matt Gaetz is the most effective republican congressman we’ve had for the last year. If he did nothing but get rid of Kevin McCarthy, he’s an absolute hero. I call him MAGA Matt Gaetz. I’m not in his district but live in Florida and will support Rep Gaetz in any race.

Comments are closed.


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