MIRAMAR BEACH, Florida – Most famous Republicans are doing their best to avoid this Matt Gaetz – but no Conservatives in his ruby neighborhood in Florida’s panhandle.
While the embattled 38-year-old Congressman denies sex trafficking allegations at the center of an ongoing federal investigation, Republicans at the heart of Trump country are deeply suspicious of and continue to support the allegations.
“I think this is nothing more than false news,” said Larry Hetu, a Gulf Breeze activist who is part of a group trying to rename a local bridge after former President Donald Trump. “I don’t believe in the mainstream media. MP Gaetz has denied everything.”
The allegations against Gaetz, who, among other things, violate the federal law on sex trafficking and, among other things, have a relationship with a 17-year-old, would be enough to send most of the supporters on the run. But Gaetz comes from an influential political family in Florida and is a staunch ally of Trump who matters a lot in this conservative stronghold. Gaetz held this congressional seat for four years and has been a steadfast defender of Trump ever since, which has helped fuel doubts about the stream of negative media attention that is now pouring down on Gaetz.
With Gaetz vowing not to resign, his district’s support signals that the embattled congressman could survive the scandal.
Other Republicans who have backed Gaetz aren’t entirely dismissive – but they also argue that the details that have appeared so far in news articles like the New York Times, which first ran the news about the sex trafficking investigation, were vague.
Escambia County’s Republican Party leader John Roberts said he would never condone anyone having sex with someone who is a minor. But he added that “I haven’t heard anything specific yet”. Roberts lamented what he called “sinister speculation” against Gaetz, adding that “I don’t trust anonymous sources from the New York Times”.
Gaetz ‘borough, formerly held by Joe Scarborough, stretches for more than 100 miles from the Alabama border to vacation spots west of Panama City that are currently inundated with spring break visitors. The last time a Democrat was elected to Gaetz’s seat was in 1992. Trump won the district in 2020 by more than 30 points, although he ultimately lost to Joe Biden – and months after the election, Trump’s flags and signs still dot the landscape .
Gaetz has attracted attention at home and nationally for being a staunch defender of Trump and having appeared on Fox News multiple times to beat up liberals and the media. The revelations that he was being investigated for possibly having sex with a 17-year-old girl and paying for transportation across state lines led to a further investigation into his behavior while serving in Congress.
Even before the DOJ investigation, Gaetz’s behavior towards women had been whispered on Capitol Hill. Known for bragging about his sexual conquests, Gaetz showed some of his colleagues nude pictures and videos of women, two sources that have been confirmed by POLITICO. These interactions – first reported by CNN – sometimes took place right outside the Chamber of the House, where the legislature cast its votes.
A person who saw one of the videos said it was a naked woman doing hula hooping. The other source, familiar with the second-hand nudes and videos, added that it was common knowledge on Capitol Hill that Gaetz had once dated a college-age intern for another convention bureau. The Daily Beast reported that the woman was over the consent age.
The allegations have resulted in many prominent Republicans, including those in Florida, still closing their lips. The administration of Governor Ron DeSantis, an ally of Gaetz who relied on the member of Congress to fill his administration after the 2018 election, said the governor would not comment based on the ongoing investigation.
For his part, Gaetz did not wait for the probe to wrap itself up, but continues to emphatically deny any wrongdoing. In one (n op-ed for The Washington ExaminerThe combative Gaetz said: “I have absolutely not resigned.” Gaetz began the article by stating: “Let me first remind everyone that I am a representative in Congress, not a monk and certainly not a criminal.”
His defenders, at least on the ground, keep coming out. Nathan Nelson, who once served as director of military affairs at Gaetz, held a press conference in Gaetz’s district on Monday calling the allegations “unfounded”. Nelson said he was visited by FBI agents last week who wanted to know if he stopped working for Gaetz last year because of concerns about his behavior. Nelson said agents received the tip from the media, which raised his doubts about the ongoing investigation.
Nelson’s press conference, held in the driveway of a residential neighborhood in southern 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 MP Mike Hill, a Republican from Pensacola who previously clashed with members of his own party after joking about gay people, said people in the area told him they just don’t believe the allegations, especially as some of the people do Key stories were first reported by the New York Times.
“They think it’s an attempt to take out a conservative,” said Hill, who added that he had told people to “wait and see” before making a final decision.
Pensacola Republican Greg Merk, a former Navy pilot who was knocked down by Gaetz in the 2020 Republican primary, is also awaiting the results of the investigation. Merk railed against Gaetz as someone whose position on everything from marijuana to LGBTQ issues was inconsistent with the district he represented, but also said, “I will not judge a man,” adding that the allegations were “hardly surprising”.
Merk, who applied for the seat again the next year, claimed that conservative media had stayed away from the story because they had helped build Gaetz over the past four years.
“Just because it’s something from the mainstream media, I don’t reject it,” said Merk.
Olivia Beavers and Melanie Zanona contributed to this story.