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For Gaetz, Washington Drama Could Fuel Florida Ambitions

For Gaetz, Washington Drama Could Fuel Florida Ambitions


Representative Matt Gaetz’s successful push to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy has ratcheted up speculation that the fourth-term Republican congressman already has his eye on his next target, still three years away: the Florida governor’s mansion.

Mr. Gaetz, a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump, has swatted away rumors that he is planning to run statewide in 2026. But that hasn’t stopped Florida’s political class from chattering. A lot.

“He’d be the front-runner in any Republican primary he wants to run in right now,” said State Representative Alex Andrade, a Republican who represents the Pensacola area, which is in Mr. Gaetz’s Panhandle district. “He’s got his finger on the pulse of the Republican base better than anyone I see.”

The ambitious Mr. Gaetz boasts significant name recognition and is a favorite to receive Mr. Trump’s endorsement. He knows how to dominate the news spotlight. And he has extensive connections with political operatives, lobbyists and donors from across Florida, dating back to his and his father’s years in the State Legislature and to his role leading Gov. Ron DeSantis’s transition in 2018.

Much could happen between now and 2026. But the potential for a new job outside of Washington might be a welcome notion for Mr. Gaetz, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 2016.

Ousting Mr. McCarthy showed how few allies he has within his party in Congress, where he is openly reviled — just seven members joined him to help topple the speaker. Many Republican lawmakers accused Mr. Gaetz of knifing Mr. McCarthy with no endgame beyond pursuing his own personal interests.

Should he choose to run, Mr. Gaetz will still have liabilities as a statewide candidate. Federal prosecutors targeted him as part of a sex-trafficking investigation that did not lead to charges against him but revealed embarrassing personal details that opponents would no doubt reprise. Influential conservative media pundits have turned on him over removing Mr. McCarthy.

And while Mr. Gaetz may have Mr. Trump’s strong support now, if the former president loses his 2024 bid to return to the White House, it is unclear if he would continue to play kingmaker in future elections.

Speculation about Mr. Gaetz’s political future is happening unusually early, before next year’s presidential election — a sign, Florida Democrats say, that Republicans are ready to move on from Mr. DeSantis, who is running for president.

“They want to look forward because they’re tired of this chaos, but obviously Matt Gaetz is not the solution to that,” said Nikki Fried, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, who ran in the primary for governor last year and could try for the job again. But, she added: “Everybody’s attention needs to be on 2024.”

Unlike Mr. Gaetz, Mr. DeSantis was a largely unknown congressman from Northeast Florida when he ran for governor in 2018. His candidacy succeeded in large part thanks to Mr. Trump’s endorsement. Now in his second term, Mr. DeSantis has made the governorship an even more attractive job, expanding its authority to make the office perhaps more powerful than ever before.

If the current Republican dynamics persist, the 2026 race could turn into a proxy fight between a candidate backed by Mr. Trump and one backed by Mr. DeSantis — keeping Florida at the center of the nation’s political conversation.

For now, Mr. Gaetz insists he has no plans to seek the office, saying in a text message this week that he is “not running for governor.”

“I’m exactly where I am supposed to be. And I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said. “My only political ambition is electing President Trump again.”

He called a recent NBC News report that he planned to run “overblown clickbait.” But in August, Mr. Gaetz seemed to acknowledge that leading Florida had crossed his mind.

“I would definitely enjoy that job so much,” Mr. Gaetz said during a livestream appearance with Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, who encouraged him to run. “I would never leave it if I ever got that opportunity.”

Among the other possible Republican contenders are the entire Florida Cabinet — Ashley Moody, the attorney general; Wilton Simpson, the agriculture commissioner, and Jimmy Patronis, the chief financial officer — as well as Lt. Gov. Jeanette M. Núñez and several members of Congress, including Representatives Byron Donalds and Michael Waltz.

Mr. Donalds is seen as being particularly close to Mr. Trump. Mr. Simpson has at times clashed with Mr. DeSantis, who is term-limited. Ms. Moody and Ms. Núñez have endorsed the governor for president.

There is no doubt that Mr. Gaetz is polarizing. Steve Vernon, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Manatee County, in Southwest Florida, called Mr. McCarthy’s ouster “a total mistake” by Mr. Gaetz.

“Democrats are all cheering and laughing,” Mr. Vernon said. “All of the attention has switched from Biden” and immigration and other issues, he added, “and now we’re in limbo.”

Were Mr. Gaetz to run for governor, Mr. Vernon said, he would have “no chance.”

“He’s too extreme,” he said, “and he wouldn’t win.”

Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation, who are usually deferential to their colleagues, were angry at Mr. Gaetz and the other Republicans who ousted Mr. McCarthy. “Fringe hostage takers,” Representative Carlos A. Gimenez of Miami called them.

Representative John Rutherford of Jacksonville blasted Mr. Gaetz by name. “Rep. Gaetz’s ‘concern’ for the American people is hollow,” he said. “Rep. Gaetz is driving our nation toward the brink of another government shutdown, all for clicks and cash and a boost in his national profile.”

Despite his hard-line conservative views, Mr. Gaetz has also taken positions on marijuana policy and other issues that have made him friends across the aisle. One of them is John Morgan, a major Florida political donor who describes himself as a “Biden Democrat” but is registered without a party affiliation. Mr. Gaetz recently had him on when he guest-hosted a show on Newsmax.

Mr. Morgan said that if the Republican field for governor is as crowded as expected, Mr. Gaetz would be well positioned to get enough votes — perhaps 30 percent — to win. “It’s kind of the Trump formula,” he said.

Most people do not follow the ins and outs of Congress, Mr. Morgan added. Their takeaway from the McCarthy ouster will be that Mr. Gaetz is a “fighter,” he said, and that he is tight with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Gaetz could also be helped by his family. His father, Don Gaetz, served for a decade in the Florida Legislature, including two years as Senate president, until 2016. This week, he filed to run for Senate again.

In an interview, the elder Mr. Gaetz dismissed the suggestion that he was running again to be positioned to help his son, saying he was encouraged to return to politics by people in Northwest Florida.

“He and I talk almost every day, and I can tell you that he is singularly focused on budget issues and spending issues and trying to get a vote on term limits in Washington,” he said. “He has not told me that he intends to run for governor. I don’t think he has an interest in it.”


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