Washington, DC – “It’s disgusting.”
That’s how a United States congressman reacted to efforts from his Republican colleague Matt Gaetz to fundraise while leading a push to remove then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
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In one of the most dramatic moments from Tuesday’s ouster, Representative Garret Graves held aloft a mobile phone on the House floor, purporting to show text messages from Gaetz’s campaign.
“Using official actions — official actions — to raise money,” Graves said, his voice rising in indignation as he referenced the text messages. “It’s what’s disgusting about Washington.”
Gaetz was in his colleagues’ crosshairs this week as he helmed a successful effort to topple McCarthy, the Republican House leader.
But Gaetz — a controversial figure in US politics — was unfazed. In fact, he went on the attack against Graves and the entire political establishment, a sign of the increasingly fractious nature of the modern Republican Party.
“When it comes to how [to] raise money, I take no lecture on asking patriotic Americans to weigh in and contribute to this fight from those who would grovel and bend knee for the lobbyists and special interests who own our leadership,” Gaetz said, responding to his critics and prompting boos in return.
By the end of Tuesday evening, McCarthy had been booted as the head of the House, and the legislative chamber was in disarray, with no clear leader to direct its business.
But experts say McCarthy’s removal was a triumph for anti-establishment figures like Gaetz, underscoring their prominence — and their willingness to use their power in unprecedented ways.
I will not seek to run again for Speaker of the House. I may have lost a vote today, but I fought for what I believe in—and I believe in America. It has been an honor to serve. https://t.co/4EMpOuwtzy
— Kevin McCarthy (@SpeakerMcCarthy) October 3, 2023
A self-described ‘firebrand’
Gaetz has a reputation for inviting political fights, said Adam Cayton, a political science professor at the University of West Florida. The congressman even named his podcast and his 2020 book “Firebrand”.
“He courts the spotlight. He quickly inserts himself into conflict. He puts himself in the centre of the action presumably in order to raise his profile and name recognition,” Cayton told Al Jazeera.
Gaetz, who represents a conservative district in Florida’s Panhandle region, initiated the motion to vacate McCarthy as speaker on Monday, sparking a two-day-long fight to pull the gavel out of the leader’s hands.
He ultimately was joined in his cause by seven Republicans and the entire Democratic caucus, securing a majority in the 435-member chamber. The vote was 216-210 in favour of removing McCarthy.
It was the first time in American history that a speaker of the House was expelled from the post.
As speaker, McCarthy presided over a narrow Republican majority in the House — one of two chambers in the US Congress, in charge of passing laws, making budget allocations and exercising oversight over the government.
But that razor-thin majority has made each Republican vote all the more crucial to passing legislation. Gaetz and other Republicans have wielded that power to push forward their political agenda.
So how did Gaetz, a 41-year-old lawmaker with less than seven years’ experience in the House, come to upend the chamber and dethrone its leader?
A former Florida state representative, Gaetz was elected to Congress in 2016, the same year Donald Trump was voted in as president. He soon became well-known for his spirited defence of Trump when controversies arose, as they often did.
He also embraced isolationist foreign policy and presented himself as unafraid to upset the traditional wing of the Republican Party.
That was apparent in 2023, when Gaetz championed opposition to McCarthy’s speakership bid. Though McCarthy was likewise a Trump ally, Gaetz refused to back him as House leader, resulting in 15 rounds of voting before the speaker was elected.
The move against McCarthy
Gaetz says his primary grievance with McCarthy is the former speaker’s failure to split the federal budget into several bills in order to rein in government spending.
But Cayton, the political science professor, says Gaetz’s motives could go beyond his public statements.
He said Gaetz represents a new generation of Trump-affiliated, “social media-driven, combative conservatives”. And with his coup against McCarthy, Gaetz turned himself into one of the most prominent legislators in the House.
“If you’re a junior member of Congress looking to increase your influence in your party, finding a way to exert leverage … is a good way to do that,” Cayton said.
Voters are often sceptical of institutions and leaders, especially on the Republican side, Cayton added, so angering top politicians is not necessarily politically costly.
“It’s been politically beneficial for conservative members of Congress to campaign on criticising the leaders of their own party,” Cayton said.
That willingness to defy party leaders — and at times, political norms — is especially evident in the rise of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, founded in 2015.
Five of the eight Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy are from the hardline caucus. (Gaetz is an ally but not an official member of the group.)
Trump himself amplified the anti-establishment trend in his own campaign for the presidency, cementing its status with his White House win.
“The Freedom Caucus wing is made up of many junior members who were motived to run in Trump’s image, and in this manner, they take on his general approach, which is to create chaos and media spectacle,” Meredith Conroy, professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, told Al Jazeera in an email.
“There are some members in the Freedom Caucus who pre-date Trump, but his election has emboldened them to also reject real governing.”
Former Freedom Caucus Chair Andy Biggs voted to remove McCarthy on Tuesday, as did fellow caucus members Eli Crane, Ken Buck, Bob Good and Matt Rosendale.
Representative Tim Burchett and Congresswoman Nancy Mace completed the list of McCarthy dissenters, though they are not part of the Freedom Caucus.
Most Freedom Caucus members, however, sided with McCarthy during the removal vote, if but reluctantly. Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, for instance, voted “No, for now” on the resolution against the speaker.
The political spectrum
Christian Fong, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, said the divisions amongst House Republicans are mostly over tactics, not policy.
Almost all Republicans agree on slashing government spending to address what they see as a ticking time bomb of national debt.
McCarthy was willing to compromise with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling earlier this year and again this month to temporarily fund the government. But Gaetz and his allies wanted a more aggressive stance from the speaker, Fong said, even if that meant allowing a government shutdown to extract concessions.
“I don’t think it would be correct to say that these are the most extreme or the most conservative members of the Republican Party,” Fong said of the eight Republicans who ultimately removed McCarthy.
In fact, Gaetz shares many views with left-wing lawmakers: He opposes foreign military intervention, supports the decriminalisation of certain recreational drugs like marijuana and approves of regulating big tech companies.
Yet, the lawmaker is often described as far-right. Fong said Gaetz may have earned the label because of his combativeness, not ideology.
“I think part of that is maybe this is a misnomer,” he said. “And part of this may be when certain people are using terms like ‘far right’, they’re not as much using that to describe policy positions, as they’re using it to describe approaches to politics.”
What’s next for Gaetz?
Many House Republicans are furious with Gaetz, and some conservative commentators are calling for his expulsion from the GOP caucus, if not Congress altogether.
Despite that anger, there has been media speculation that the congressman is considering a run for Florida governor in 2026: The incumbent Ron DeSantis will be unable to seek reelection because of term limits.
Gaetz previously faced an investigation over possible sexual misconduct, but the Justice Department decided against charging him, his lawyers told US media outlets in February.
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) October 1, 2023
However, he still faces an internal ethics probe in Congress over various allegations, including illicit drug use, the New York Times reported earlier this week.
“It seems that the Ethics Committee’s interest in me waxes and wanes based on my relationship with the speaker,” Gaetz said on Monday.
Despite the scandals and bipartisan loathing, Gaetz’s rising profile as a Republican rabble-rouser could propel him further politically.
“Being disliked by the other party and being disliked by other members of Congress typically doesn’t do you any harm with voters,” said Cayton, the University of West Florida professor.
But the fact that Gaetz had to essentially side with Democrats to remove McCarthy could come back to hurt him, Cayton said. “I don’t know if it’ll stick or not; I’m interested to see.”