Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican elected to the state House in 2010, had been in a heated contest for a state Senate seat held by his father, Don, a former Senate president forced out of office this fall due to term limits.
“Washington’s failures have left the American people with trillions in debt, illegal immigrants sucking us dry, and attacks from Muslim terrorists rising. While I planned to continue serving in the Florida Legislature, the fights we must win to save this country are in Washington. Our Constitution is being ignored, our veterans have been abandoned, and our 2nd Amendment rights are under attack,” the younger Gaetz said in a statement Monday announcing his candidacy.
Gaetz’s entrance into the race makes him the first out of the gate in what could be a bare-knuckle Republican primary contest to replace U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, who recently announced he will not seek re-election to the District 1 seat he has held for 15 years. Other possible contenders included state Sen. Greg Evers, Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford and Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward.
But Monday, Stafford issued a statement saying he intends to stay on the sidelines, at least for now.
“After considerable thought and prayer, I’ve decided to forgo the race at this time. I have tremendous confidence in the voters in Escambia County and Northwest Florida and have faith they will choose our next member of Congress wisely. As supervisor of elections, I look forward to continuing to do my part to ensure all voters have the opportunity to make their voices heard,” said Stafford, who previously served as chief of staff to Joe Scarborough during the MSNBC talk show host’s stint in Congress.
Evers said he intends to make an announcement regarding the race early next week.
“If I do run, it’s because I believe it’s where I can be the most effective service to my constituents, and not because I’m in a rush to enter the political fray in order to gain some sort of purely political, strategic advantage,” Evers, R-Baker, said in a telephone interview during his first visit to the nation’s capital on Monday.
“I really believe these are serious times, extremely serious times. I intend to conduct myself accordingly. That requires that I do lots of prayer and research. That’s the reason I’m in Washington. And it was very humbling,” he said. “Our country is in a serious state of affairs right now. We have to have a leader that’s going to stand up for the Panhandle. I’ve done that at the state level, but I want to be sure that I’m the right person to do that in Washington.”
The Northwest Florida district – one of the state’s most conservative – abuts the Alabama border and spans Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties and includes most of Holmes County.
The winner of the GOP primary is almost certain to go to Washington, and a match-up between Gaetz and Evers could result in the type of political slugfest that the Panhandle is known for.
“There’s a certain grit to the politicians that we produce. That’s almost out of a necessity. Those conservative values of hard work and play hard and leave everything on the field shows up in our politics,” said Steve Southerland, a former congressman from neighboring District 2, who served two terms in office before being ousted by Democrat Gwen Graham in 2014.
During his tenure in the state House, Gaetz, a sharp-tongued lawyer, earned a reputation for his oratory skills and for being willing, if not eager, to take on high-profile, often controversial issues, including medical marijuana and gun rights. He was also renowned for his blistering attacks on ideological – and political – opponents.
“I’ve never won any awards in Tallahassee for political correctness, but I tell the truth,” Gaetz said in a telephone interview Monday. “I have a six-year record. I am who I am. In Tallahassee, people have told me that my style is sharp and that I ought to be more politically correct with my rhetoric. But I only know one way to serve and one way to talk, and that is to tell the truth.”
The 33-year-old’s campaign announcement Monday was accompanied by a video posted from his Twitter account – with more than 7,000 followers, Gaetz is one of Florida’s more popular state legislators on the site – featuring the hashtags #FightWashington and #RestoreAmerica.
Gaetz’s announcement touted his conservative cred, while also referencing Trump, the billionaire real-estate and entertainment-industry magnate who handily won every county in the congressional district in Florida’s presidential primary election last week.
“When Donald Trump is president, Northwest Florida’s voice in Congress must ring loud and clear for bold, conservative reform. Mine will. Whether it was banning Obamacare-funded abortions, blocking attempts to repeal Stand Your Ground, cutting taxes by over $1 Billion, or supporting military families, I’ve been an effective leader in the Florida House. I’m ready to fight and win for Northwest Florida in Congress,” he said in the statement.
But Gaetz’s alignment with Trump cost him the support of at least one Republican – operative and lobbyist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who lives in the district. Stipanovich said that he and his lobbying firm have always backed Gaetz in his previous political endeavors, including the state Senate race. But Gaetz’s endorsement of the presidential frontrunner is a deal breaker for Stipanovich.
“Based on the returns in the Alabama, Georgia and Florida primaries, it’s quite probable that you cannot win a Republican primary without being a Trump supporter. But that doesn’t make you right. That just makes you ambitious,” Stipanovich said. “I recognize the nature of politics. I recognize the nature of political expediency. But there are limits to everything. We’re talking about the fundamental structure of the United States, and expediency does not cross that line. This [Trump] is a bad man. He is a racist. He’s a xenophobe. He’s a misogynist. He’s a nativist. He’s a hyper-nationalist. He’s an authoritarian. He’s a liberal. He’s not a conservative. And it is not OK to be for Donald Trump.”
Gaetz’s exit from the Senate race leaves Bay County Commissioner George Gainer, who dumped $500,000 of his own money into his campaign and could now become a virtual shoe-in for the post. As of Monday, no other candidates had registered for the seat, according to the state Division of Elections website.
“George is one of us. George’s family is one of us. Our family has lived in the district for 200 years, and the Gainer family has been there longer than our family. So when you’re talking about founding families of our area, the Gainer family is one of those,” said Southerland, a lobbyist with Capital Hill Consulting who is backing Gainer in the Senate race. “He’s a good man and he’s honest. He will be a breath of fresh air.”
Tying himself to Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s coattails, state Rep. Matt Gaetz announced his candidacy Monday for an open Panhandle congressional seat with an announcement blasting illegal immigrants, Muslim terrorists and the national debt.