Matt Gaetz builds national profile, but says focus is on Trump election

August 26, 2020
In The News

He recently starred in an HBO documentary, backed candidates in Florida primaries that beat the GOP leadership’s picks and used his signature snark to draw a contrast between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the opening night of the Republican National Convention.

But Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz does not see the national profile he’s building as a steppingstone to higher office or a shot at the House Republican leadership, he told CQ Roll Call in an interview Tuesday.

Rather, he said his political moves are aimed at one thing: helping Trump win a second term.

That includes picking favorites in Florida congressional primaries. Gaetz endorsed Scott Franklin, a Lakeland city commissioner, who ousted Rep. Ross Spano in last week’s primary for the 15th District. He also backed conservative media personality and Air Force veteran Anna Paulina Luna, who won the 13th District primary to take on Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, a former governor. 

House Republican leaders had supported Spano, who is under federal investigation for alleged campaign finance violations over loans made to his 2018 campaign, and health care lobbyist Amanda Makki in the crowded 13th District primary.

“Republican primary voters watching Fox News, they see Matt on TV at night; that’s a trusted person they know. If he is doing a phone call on behalf of someone, they are certainly going to take a look,” said David Johnson, a longtime Republican consultant in Florida and the former executive director of the state GOP.

Gaetz said he got involved in the races because of Trump, not because he’s looking to be a player in congressional races.

“My only ambition politically in 2020 is to reelect the president,” he said. “There were a couple circumstances where candidates would be better for the sake of reelecting the president in a swing state.”

Gaetz won his current term in 2018 by more than 39 percentage points, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his November race Solid Republican. So as he looks toward November, Gaetz said he plans to keep his focus on helping Trump win Florida’s 29 electoral votes and get reelected to the White House.

“I’m going to rally the base in the Sunshine State. We’re going to turn them out and provide the president a big victory,” he said, noting he plans to do that “by speaking the truth as clearly as I can, as often as I can, as directly as I can.”

Punches thrown in convention speech

Gaetz’s eagerness to boost Trump to victory is probably why he was picked to speak Monday on the opening night of the Republican National Convention.

Trump announced that the congressman would be speaking at the convention before anyone had actually asked. Gaetz didn’t mind.

“He said it publicly, and I was honored to be included,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz was given only three minutes for his convention speech, so he wasted no time, attacking Biden in his opening line.

“I’m speaking from an auditorium emptier than Joe Biden’s daily schedule,” Gaetz said in front of a backdrop of American flags surrounding a large red stage in Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington.

Gaetz’s jabs at Biden didn’t let up there, as he painted the choice between Trump and the Democratic nominee as one of “strength or weakness; energy or confusion; success or failure.”

He sought to exploit the initial lack of enthusiasm for Biden among progressives while arguing Biden is being controlled by those same party liberals.

“The woketopians will settle for Biden because they will make him an extra in a movie written, produced and directed by others,” Gaetz said. “It’s a horror film, really. They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home and invite MS-13 to live next door. And the police aren’t coming when you call. In Democrat-run cities they’re already being defunded, disbanding.”

The remarks were clearly designed to be stinging sound bites. Gaetz and his team acknowledge in an HBO documentary called “The Swamp” that aired earlier this month that he has grown his profile using the same self-promotion tools as Trump: social media and cable news.

Documentary shows a different side 

The HBO documentary presents Gaetz as an unapologetic Trump loyalist, but it also shows he has political and policy aspirations that are not always in line with the president.

A partisan warrior on most matters, like defending Trump against impeachment, Gaetz has been willing to cross Trump on policy matters such as presidential war powers. He worked across the aisle with anti-war Democrats like California Reps. Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee on legislation to limit Trump’s authority to use military force in conflicts with Iran and Yemen.

Despite his disagreement with Trump on war powers, Gaetz didn’t shy away from the topic in his convention speech. But he mentioned it in a way that suggested Trump has been restrained, especially compared with Biden.

“President Trump is the first president since Reagan not to start a new war,” Gaetz said. “Biden has foolishly cheerled decades of war without winning, without end.”

Gaetz has also differentiated himself from other Republicans on the issue of money in politics, which was the main focus of the HBO documentary. He is the only House Republican to refuse PAC money.

“I am hopeful that there will be other Republicans in the 2020 cycle who swear off PAC money,” Gaetz told CQ Roll Call. He said he’s talked to a few who’ve expressed interest in doing so but he didn’t want to name them.

The push to raise money for the party, with a member’s ability to climb the ranks largely tied to their fundraising prowess, is probably one of the reasons Gaetz quickly answered “no” when asked if he sees himself ever running for House GOP leadership.

“I’m not here to be part of the maid service in the Washington money laundering game,” he said.

It may also be why Gaetz has no current political ambitions beyond serving as the representative for the 1st District on Florida’s Panhandle and helping Trump get reelected.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever run for a higher office again,” he said.

Helped a super PAC

Despite Gaetz’s aversion to taking PAC money for himself, he was willing to work with a super PAC to help Franklin in his primary against Spano.

Johnson, the Republican consultant in Florida, formed the Wingman PAC to funnel support to Franklin in his challenge against Spano because he was concerned that the incumbent, who was under federal investigation for alleged campaign finance violations, would put the 15th District seat at risk in November.

His effort to boost Franklin didn’t get much traction until the late stages of the campaign, when Gaetz, whom Johnson has known for 15 years, called and asked how he could get involved. 

Spano had support from congressional leaders and every other member of the Florida Republican delegation. But Gaetz held a teletown hall and made personal phone calls to voters, telling them Franklin, a Navy veteran, was “the right person to ensure that President Trump has the strongest possible campaign” in the state, Johnson said.

Franklin won by less than 3 points. 

“We were in a dead-heat race,” Johnson said. “Matt’s impetus at the end brought a lot of attention to the race from folks not focused on it. He was able to attract a lot more voter interest. Certainly, Matt made a difference.”

The same was true in the race to pick a GOP challenger to Crist in the 13th District. Luna surged ahead of Makki in the final weeks of the campaign and won the primary by fewer than 5,000 votes. 

Makki had endorsements from Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise. But when she circulated a picture of herself with Donald Trump Jr., implying support from the first family, the president’s son stepped in. “You’d think a candidate would ask before plastering my picture everywhere, implying support,” Trump Jr. tweeted. 

“Matt is very close to all the Trumps, and I would imagine that he helped fan the flame,” Johnson said. 

Fanning other flames

Gaetz’s alliance with Trump Jr. has also helped fuel intraparty conflict with House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney.

Gaetz confronted Cheney during a GOP conference meeting earlier this summer over her backing a primary challenger to Kentucky GOP Rep. Thomas Massie. Cheney’s nonapologetic response led other conservative Republicans to pile on with complaints about her not being loyal enough to Trump.

Both Gaetz and Trump Jr. have said Cheney should resign, and Gaetz has made clear he won’t support Cheney for another term in leadership.

“I don’t think that Liz represents where our conference is,” he said. “Our conference is very supportive of the president.”

Gaetz was also noncommittal about backing McCarthy for another term as Republican leader.

“I voted for Kevin on the floor because he was the person who came out of our conference selection,” he said, explaining he’s “not one to go against the conference selection.”