Top 1 Magazine

Top One Magazine

Matt Gaetz just positioned himself for Florida governor

MIAMI — When Reps. Matt Gaetz and Byron Donalds staked out opposing positions on shutting down the government, they framed it as a fight over spending.

On ousting Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the two Florida Republicans disagreed over whether it was a referendum on McCarthy’s leadership or a distraction from urgent House business.

What they didn’t say is that the divergent views were also likely about the next campaign for governor of Florida.

Gaetz and Donalds are two of the most prominent Republicans expected to run to succeed Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2026, a distant contest that is already churning up political conflict at the state and national level. They have positioned themselves differently in Congress: both as stern conservatives, but with Gaetz as a rebellious gadfly and Donalds as a more conventional hard-liner, a dynamic that helped shape the shutdown fight.

Gaetz emerged Tuesday, after successfully booting McCarthy from the speakership, as one of the most influential Republicans in the nation — the leader of the first successful House coup. And as he eyes Florida’s governorship, his shadow feud could quickly turn Washington dynamics into fodder for a Tallahassee campaign war.

“We are breaking the fever,” Gaetz declared outside the U.S. Capitol shortly after the vote Tuesday.

His move, however, was met with immediate backlash from some Florida Republicans, including Republican Rep. John Rutherford, who tore into Gaetz for “driving our nation toward the brink of another government shutdown, all for clicks and cash and a boost in his national profile.”

Donalds, in a brief interview this week at the Capitol, described himself as “tactically different” from Gaetz and denied that their differences are really about the governor’s race, saying 2026 is far in the future and that “each of these years is like dog years.”

He also confirmed he’s interested in running for governor, whether or not Gaetz runs.

But congressional rivals are just one group seeking the Florida governor’s mansion. Gaetz and Donalds, who both endorsed former President Donald Trump, may face competition from at least two DeSantis allies, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez and Ashley Moody, Florida’s attorney general.

Nuñez, who is the highest-ranking Latina in Florida and served as DeSantis’ running mate in 2018 and 2022, endorsed the governor for president in May. And DeSantis returned the favor, saying Nuñez would provide continuity in the governor’s office if he wins the presidency and takes office in 2025.

Rounding out the prospective candidates are Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) and Jimmy Patronis, the GOP Florida chief financial officer.

That there’s so much early interest in the race speaks to Florida’s outsize role in national politics, where local competitions can have national implications, including sending the government into a shutdown. Beyond the congressional conflicts, leading the third most populous state in the nation gives governors a huge platform for their policy and political goals — DeSantis famously built his national reputation by governing through the pandemic and reshaping the state’s schools, health agenda and economy, helping turn Florida more red. And while no Florida governor has been elected president — dubbed the “curse of the Florida man” — six have tried in the last 50 years.

Some of the scrambling over the race can be traced to Gaetz. The pugilistic Trump ally was the center of attention in January during McCarthy’s speakership battle in the House, leading to speculation that he was trying to raise his profile ahead of a possible run for governor.

That’s only increased over the last few weeks as Gaetz led the House conservative revolt against McCarthy and agitated for a government shutdown. Rank-and-file House Republicans view Gaetz’s recent moves, in part, as an attempt to boost his political standing back home.

But Gaetz dismissed the hype around his possible 2026 gubernatorial run, saying in a brief interview earlier this week that he has “no plans to run for governor,” though admitted he thought “Tallahassee is a lot more lovely than Washington.”

During a livestreamed chat in August, Gaetz didn’t push back when Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, said they’d both endorse him for governor.

“I would definitely enjoy that job so much,” Gaetz replied. “I would never leave it if I ever got that opportunity.”

And Gaetz has been spending more time in Florida, said a former GOP operative, granted anonymity to protect their work relationships.

“He’s showing up at more Florida events than we’ve seen him at in the last six years — football games, the [Florida] Capitol — we didn’t see him for years and all the sudden he’s got a presence again,” the person said.

Donald Trump also added to the interest when he was asked about Gaetz’s possible bid during an interview with the conservative National Pulse, praising the lawmaker as a “great guy, a wonderful person.” The Biden campaign quickly seized on the comment and posted it on social media. True to form, Gaetz responded to the Biden campaign’s post on X, saying: “Stop….you guys are making me blush.”

While ultimately backing the shutdown, Donalds broke with Gaetz during the funding fight in September when Donalds pushed for a short-term spending patch that would have reduced most non-defense spending and notably didn’t include aid for Ukraine. Donalds also rejected the attempt to oust McCarthy, saying it’s the wrong time and that Republicans need to stay unified in order to secure the border and cut spending.

While the congressional maneuvering has exposed cleaving among the candidates, so too has their allegiance to Trump and DeSantis. The congressional Republicans all endorsed Trump for president while Moody and Nuñez are closely tied to DeSantis. Patronis, who was first appointed to his position by former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, has not endorsed yet in the presidential race.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to questions about how he was thinking about the Florida governor’s race. But his influence in Florida stretches back years to DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial run, when Trump’s backing provided a crucial push toward DeSantis’ victory in the primary.

“The last time it mattered, it really mattered,” said Rep. Carlos Giménez (R-Fla.), referring to Trump’s endorsement of DeSantis. He predicted that a 2024 win from Trump would have a huge influence on the Florida race, and said his endorsement would still give any candidate a significant boost even if he loses.

But the same applies to DeSantis. Brett Doster, a Tallahassee-based Republican consultant who worked on former Gov. Jeb Bush’s gubernatorial run and as senior adviser in Florida to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said DeSantis would still be in a powerful position as governor if he returns home from the 2024 campaign trail.

“He will have an outsized interest in his legacy,” Doster predicted.

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