Politico

Florida's Trump country stands with Gaetz


MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — Most well-known Republicans are doing their best to avoid Matt Gaetz — but not conservatives in his ruby-red district in Florida’s Panhandle.

As the embattled 38-year-old congressman denies sex trafficking allegations at the center of a still unwinding federal investigation, Republicans in the heart of Trump country are deeply suspicious of the accusations and still support him.

“I believe this is nothing more than fake news,” said Larry Hetu, a Gulf Breeze activist who is part of a group trying to get a local bridge renamed after former President Donald Trump. “I don’t believe anything coming from the mainstream media. Rep. Gaetz has denied it all.”

The allegations against Gaetz — violating federal sex-trafficking laws and having a relationship with a 17-year-old, among other things — would be enough to send most backers fleeing. But Gaetz hails from an influential Florida political family and is a staunch ally of Trump, which in this conservative stronghold counts for a lot. Gaetz has held this congressional seat for four years, and since that time has been a constant defender of Trump, which has helped fuel doubt over the torrent of negative media attention now showering down on Gaetz.

As Gaetz vows not to resign, the support from his district signals that the embattled congressman could weather the scandal.

Other Republicans who have supported Gaetz aren’t completely dismissive — but they also argue that the details that have appeared so far in news articles including The New York Times, which first broke the news about the sex trafficking investigation — have been vague.

John Roberts, the chair of the Escambia County Republican Party, said he would never condone anyone having sex with someone who is underage. But he added that “so far I haven’t heard anything concrete.” Roberts bemoaned what he called “sinister speculation” aimed at Gaetz and added that “I don’t trust anonymous sources from The New York Times.”

Gaetz’s district, formerly held by Joe Scarborough, stretches for more than 100 miles and it stretches from the Alabama border to resort towns just west of Panama City that are currently awash with spring break visitors. The last time a Democrat was elected to Gaetz’s seat was 1992. Trump won the district by more than 30 points in 2020 despite ultimately losing to Joe Biden — and months after the election Trump flags and signs still dot the landscape.

Gaetz has garnered attention back home and nationally for being a constant defender of Trump, appearing multiple times on Fox News to bash liberals and the media. But the revelations that he was under investigation for possibly having sex with a 17-year-old girl and paying to transport across state lines resulted in a deeper examination of his behavior while serving in Congress.

Even before the DOJ probe, Gaetz’s behavior toward women had been whispered about on Capitol Hill. Gaetz was known to brag about his sexual conquests and showed some of his colleagues nude pictures and videos of women, two sources confirmed to POLITICO. Those interactions — which were first reported by CNN — sometimes occurred right outside the House chamber, where lawmakers cast their votes.

One person who saw one of the videos said it featured a naked woman hula-hooping. The other source, who had second-hand knowledge of the nude photos and videos, added that it was widely known on Capitol Hill that Gaetz once dated a college-aged intern for another congressional office. The Daily Beast reported that the woman was over the age of consent.

The allegations have caused many prominent Republicans, including those in Florida, to remain tight-lipped. The administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ally of Gaetz who relied on the member of congress to fill out his administration after the 2018 election, has said the governor will not comment due to the ongoing investigation.

Gaetz, for his part, has not been waiting for the probe to wrap and instead continues to strongly deny any wrongdoing. In an op-ed for The Washington Examiner, the combative Gaetz said that “I am absolutely not resigning.” Gaetz began the article by stating that “let me first remind everyone that I am a representative in Congress, not a monk, and certainly not a criminal.”

His defenders, at least locally, continue to come out. Nathan Nelson, who once worked as director of military affairs for Gaetz, held a press conference on Monday in Gaetz’s district where he called the allegations “baseless.” Nelson said he was visited last week by FBI agents who wanted to know if he stopped working for Gaetz last year because he had concerns about his behavior. Nelson said that agents got this tip from the media, which he said led him to have doubts that the ongoing investigation.

Nelson’s press conference, held in the driveway of a residential neighborhood in south Walton County, reflected the intense media interest in the allegations against the congressman — a level of attention that has helped fuel doubts in his district.

Former State Rep. Mike Hill, a Pensacola Republican who previously clashed with members of his own party after he joked about gay people, said people in the area told him that they just don’t believe the allegations, especially since some of the key stories were reported first by The New York Times.

“They believe it is an attempt to take out a conservative,” said Hill, who adds that he has told people to “wait and see” before rendering a final decision.

Pensacola Republican Greg Merk, a former Navy pilot who was crushed in the 2020 Republican primary by Gaetz, is also waiting to see the results of the investigation. Merk rails against Gaetz as someone whose position on marijuana to LGBTQ issues is out of step with the district he represents, but also said “I’m not going to condemn a guy,” adding the allegations are “hardly surprising.”

Merk, who has already filed to run for the seat again next year, contended that conservative media outlets were staying away from the story because they had helped build up Gaetz over the last four years.

“Just because it’s something from the mainstream media, I’m not dismissing it,” Merk said.

Olivia Beavers and Melanie Zanona contributed to this story.

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