As Hurricane Nicole made its way to the east coast of Florida on Tuesday, a red tsunami crashed down upon the sunshine state. It was the only one this election season. The aftermath of the Republicans’ disappointing performance reopened wounds that had been festering under the surface ever since Donald Trump completed his hostile takeover of the GOP in 2016.
Beltway Republicans want to scapegoat Trumpism. The former president insists on making their job easy, taking swipes at Ron DeSantis, spiking the football on the defeat of an anti-MAGA Senate candidate in Colorado, and blaming General Don Bolduc’s disappointing performance on not being strong enough on the 2020 election.
This criticism, however, is an obvious distraction from a far greater problem with the current Republican Party. If anything, Trump’s greatest culpability for Tuesday’s red trickle was his post-2016 decision to largely maintain the operating structure of the GOP his supporters voted to change.
Republican leadership in the House, Senate, and the RNC believed they could coast into electoral victory by default. Mitch McConnell explicitly refused to offer up any platform of any sort. Kevin McCarthy held a press conference with a few vague talking points like “A Future Built on Freedom,” but good luck finding any average American aware of it. Meanwhile, Ronna Romney McDaniel has done nothing over two election cycles to inspire the confidence of any Republican faction.
Even less defendable were the deliberate financial decisions made by the alleged leaders of the party. McConnell pulled funding from Blake Masters in Arizona to help defeat a Republican Senate candidate in Alaska. Earlier this year, McCarthy unloaded millions of dollars to defeat MAGA Republican candidates in primaries, including Anthony Sabatini and Joe Kent. The intent is obvious—the priority of McCarthy and McConnell isn’t to elect Republicans. It is to reverse Donald Trump’s revolution of 2016.
Trump deserves blame here as well. His Save America PAC received over $100 million, but spent less than $15 million on his endorsed candidates in key races. At a time when the Republican Party desperately needs a leader that reflects its base, Trump allowed McConnell and McCarthy to fill the role that the base elected him to take.
This is why DeSantis is resonating with so many Republicans, including both critics and supporters of Trump’s 2016 message. DeSantis did what national leadership failed to do: he provided a clear vision for Florida, executed that vision, and elevated candidates down the ballot—securing a supermajority at the state level. And he won, bigly.
With a smaller-than-expected margin in the House and a likely tie in the Senate, both McCarthy and McConnell, as well as McDaniel, find themselves in a precarious situation. Republicans claim to be the party of merit. Rewarding these three for their performance in 2022 would demonstrate how hollow that commitment truly is. Small margins make it easier for the discontented to prevent the old guard from maintaining their leadership positions. For the credibility of the GOP, we must see change.
If Republican legislators don’t have the courage to fix their party, how can they credibly claim the ability to fix the significant problems plaguing the country?
Of course, changing leadership requires an alternative. Here, again, the party should look to Florida.
In the Senate, Rick Scott seems eager to challenge the long-standing king of the Republican Senate. He publicly attacked the “treason” of Republicans not properly standing up for candidates like Masters, a thinly veiled shot at the minority leader. While McConnell wanted to avoid policy discussions, Scott has made an aggressive push for a legislative vision—one that is frequently attacked by Joe Biden.
Scott also has a record that is of particular interest for the role of Senate minority leader. As a billionaire-turned-politician, he was himself a proto-Trump figure in Florida politics. He built a political operation parallel to the Florida Republican Party to push his agenda. While the governor could leverage post-COVID popularity to force the state legislature to follow his lead, Scott’s approach in Tallahassee will be more direct. His operation can be deployed to turn voters back home against state legislators who refuse to follow his lead.
He was effective in doing so back in 2017, and effectiveness is what Republicans desperately need.
The case for Representative Matt Gaetz may seem less obvious for those only familiar with him as a cable news regular, but no Republican in the country has demonstrated keener instincts than the proud firebrand. Gaetz not only quickly became Trump’s favorite congressman after riding into Washington with him in 2016 but was one of the only Florida leaders with Tallahassee roots to support DeSantis in 2018. After DeSantis’ successful election, the former state representative served as his state capitol sherpa.
Gaetz’s high-energy personality can also distract from his rare intelligence and keen understanding of the Republican base. In Congress, he’s been one of the most effective interrogators exposing deep state corruption, such as his grilling the FBI about the handling of Hunter Biden’s laptop. In person, he’s capable of going deep into the weeds on a broad array of vital policy points, ranging from national security to cryptocurrency. Most importantly, he has articulated a clear vision for a meritocratic GOP, as was on display when he gave a rousing speech in front of the Wyoming state capitol attacking the turncoat Liz Cheney. (McConnell, at the time, was defending Cheney’s place in leadership.)
Gaetz is savvy in the ways of modern communication: a vibrant tweeter (with more discipline than his patron in Mar-a-Lago), an engaging podcast host, and a political communicator with a real sense of humor. He also is familiar with old-school politics, being the son of Tallahassee titan Don Gaetz, a former Florida Senate president.
Gaetz, of course, has also been a lightning rod of controversy after being the subject of unsavory allegations last year. The catalyst came from the testimony of a felon with a history of making such claims, upset that the congressman couldn’t secure him a pardon from Trump. The fact that any of this came to light highlights the way the Department of Justice can selectively leak information to a corporate press that can be depended upon to take down political enemies. Gaetz beat the allegations, but a man with connections to former federal agent Dan McGee was charged with felony extortion.
In Florida, Republicans don’t get tired of winning.
Elevating Gaetz has one additional added benefit for the Republican Party: the prospect of desperately needed unity. Between Trump’s opening shots and DeSantis’ historic victory, it currently seems that a battle between the Florida governor and the man whose endorsement secured him the Republican nomination is inevitable. Gaetz is a man who has served both men loyally.
This year’s midterms highlight foundational issues with the operations of the modern Republican Party. The Democrats have the luxury of an electorate so committed to whatever social cause is being pitched by the corporate press or social media influencers that their base will follow them no matter the economic pain they inflict. The worst COVID tyrants faced no repercussions for their actions. Better dead (or mentally damaged) than red.
To overcome this, the GOP needs a vision. It needs renewed energy. It needs the organizational capability to elevate talent and discard the incompetent. It also must find leaders who can unify the deep rifts that exist and that grifters on both sides will seek to exploit for personal gain.
Florida has offered a model for how to reset political expectations.
Now is the time for Florida Men to lead.