TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Matt Gaetz is leading the resistance against Kevin McCarthy — but the Florida Republican wasn’t always an anti-establishment rebel.
Just ask the lawmakers and political operatives who knew him when he served in the Florida Legislature. They say the Panhandle Republican could cause people headaches but was known for helping leadership.
“Every speaker in Florida knew he could be a pain in the ass, but they handled him well. He ran a lot of leadership bills that passed,” said a Florida political operative who has known Gaetz since he served in the Florida House for six years beginning in 2010.
Gaetz, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, is capturing a moment right now in Congress after weathering a federal sex trafficking probe. He’s placed himself in the national spotlight by being part of the effort to block McCarthy from gaining the speakership, bringing the House to a standstill in the process. He’s drawn the ire of many in his party, including Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) who called Gaetz a “D-lister” and a fraud and former GOP speaker Newt Gingrich, who called the Republicans trying to prevent McCarthy’s speakership as “kamikazes.” It all comes as Gaetz eyes a run for Florida governor in 2026, even though the field will be crowded.
During his time in the Florida Legislature from 2010-2016, he was known as a pugilist who could get headlines, now a hallmark of his three terms in Congress. But when he walked the halls of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, he was seen, at least in part, as a part of the legislative leadership teams. He was never perceived a counterweight to Republican leadership in the Florida House and even chaired the House’s powerful finance and tax committee. He was among the Florida lawmakers closest to lobbyists, notable since he called McCarthy a “vessel for lobbyists.”
Lobbyists who knew Gaetz in Tallahassee say his role as one of the most disruptive members of Congress — leading 20 Republicans rising up against McCarthy’s speakership bid — caps a transformation for the 40-year-old lawmaker.
“I don’t know that I’ve known 10 House members in my life that were closer to lobbyists and the swamp than he was while he was here,” said a veteran Florida lobbyist granted anonymity to speak freely of Gaetz. “My assessment is that Matt deserves a fucking Academy Award.”
Gaetz did not respond to a request for comment.
Gaetz’s run for Congress came after he bowed out of a Florida Senate race to replace his father, Don, who was a former Florida Senate president facing term limits. His father was known as “Papa Gaetz” while Matt was known as “Baby Gaetz.” Matt Gaetz briefly ran against Republican George Gainer, a Republican who would go on to serve six years in the state Senate before his retirement in 2022. Gaetz got out of the Florida Senate race after former U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller retired from his western Panhandle seat, giving Gaetz an open district to run in.
From the start of his 2016 congressional campaign, he framed himself as an anti-establishment figure who wanted to shake up Washington.
“I’m not running for Congress because I want to go to Washington,” Gaetz said at the time. “I’m running for Congress because we can’t trust Washington.”
But during the 2016 election cycle, Gaetz was still essentially part of the establishment. He supported former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, an effort that was swamped by Trump, who turned Bush into a pariah with many in the Republican Party base who are now among Gaetz’s biggest supporters.
“@JebBush was an outstanding conservative governor,” Gaetz tweeted in Aug. 2015, two months after Bush got in the race. “I like action, not just talk.”
Gaetz is now known as one of Trump’s biggest champions and is supporting Trump’s 2024 White House bid even if the former president is challenged by current Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose 2018 campaign for governor Gaetz helped run.
Trump has backed McCarthy for speaker, a move that didn’t dissuade Gaetz, whose opposition remained staunch Thursday afternoon. On the ninth vote, Gaetz voted for Trump as most of his fellow anti-McCarthy Republicans chose other members of the House, including fellow Florida Republican Byron Donalds.
Donalds is also considered to be potential 2026 GOP candidate for Florida governor.
But Gaetz is also known for a federal probe examining whether he had sex with a 17-year-old and paid her for it. The investigation, which started during the end of Trump’s administration, lasted more than two years but a person familiar with the probe told POLITICO in September that authorities aren’t expected to charge Gaetz. The Florida Republican consistently denied the accusations.
The standoff over McCarthy, however, is one of Gaetz’ most high-profile fights yet. During an interview on Fox News Wednesday night, Gaetz railed against McCarthy and Washington in general, saying “this town needs to change, and we’re going to change it one or the other.”
“My team are the people in Florida who sent me here to fight for them,” he said. “My team is not the assembly of group think that occurs inside the swamp. We got to drain the swamp.”
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