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McCarthy vs. Gaetz: The GOP’s never-ending feud

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Kevin McCarthy is escalating his revenge campaign against Rep. Matt Gaetz.

In an interview with POLITICO, McCarthy backed Gaetz’s new Florida GOP primary challenger; a top McCarthy adviser also acknowledged playing a role in vetting that opponent, Aaron Dimmock. And McCarthy delivered a slashing attack on Gaetz, who led the effort to overthrow him as speaker last fall.

“Gaetz is the Hunter Biden of the Republican Party,” McCarthy said. “He’s got an opponent who is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, trained at Pensacola, went to the Naval Academy and flew jets to defend us while Gaetz was getting kicked out of high school, buying coke and paying minors for sex.”

McCarthy was referring to the focus of an ongoing House Ethics Committee probe: allegations that Gaetz had sexual contact with minors. The committee is in possession of a sworn statement that alleges Gaetz was present at a party where illegal drugs were used, ABC reported. Gaetz has denied the drugs and sex-related allegations; he graduated from Niceville High School in Florida, according to his biography on the nonpartisan site Legistorm.

The Department of Justice conducted its own investigation as part of a sex trafficking probe and, according to Gaetz’s lawyers and DOJ officials, decided not to bring criminal charges.

Gaetz responded by inviting McCarthy to appear in the district with Dimmock, arguing it would be a boon for his campaign: “I whooped Kevin McCarthy in Washington. I don’t think he’s going to fare better when I’m playing home-field advantage in North Florida.”

Presented with McCarthy’s highly personal criticism, Gaetz also revived a nearly decade-old, unproven rumor that McCarthy had an affair with a colleague.

Gaetz is the highest-profile political target among the eight hardliners whom McCarthy and his allies are targeting in a vengeance tour that was first reported by POLITICO. But he is also among the hardest of McCarthy’s foes to unseat.

And even if Gaetz — who’s won past primary challenges by healthy margins — defeats Dimmock, McCarthy may have another opportunity to exact revenge. Florida Republicans suspect he is eyeing the seat that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) will be forced to give up in 2026, though Gaetz has said he doesn’t plan to run.

It’s the recipe for a perpetual clash. Even lobbyist and McCarthy ally Jeff Miller took his shot last week, accusing Gaetz of invoking antisemitic tropes to explain his vote against a GOP antisemitism bill and slamming the Florida firebrand as a “pedophile.”

The McCarthy-Gaetz vitriol is spiking anew just as Speaker Mike Johnson appears closer than ever to neutralizing his own ouster threat from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), whose combative instincts McCarthy had worked to tame as he turned her into an ally. While Greene chafes at Johnson, Gaetz has stayed conspicuously on the sidelines and — though he occasionally criticizes the speaker’s decisions — made clear he’s not in favor of an election-year effort to topple a second House GOP leader.

The players are bringing different personalities to the clash this time, but it’s also clear that no party rivalry can measure up to McCarthy-Gaetz in terms of intensity and longevity. Their feud, many House Republicans argue, was personal from the start. Gaetz’s critics contend that he is responsible for the tension that has continued to grip the House GOP conference after McCarthy’s ouster, including the fallout from Johnson’s decisions since taking the gavel last year.

“I think it would be expected that Kevin would want to respond to what happened,” said ally Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) of the ongoing animosity, while noting that both he and Gaetz are well-respected in their districts. “So it’s not surprising.”

Some of McCarthy’s loyalists see an opportunity for payback in the Ethics Committee’s ultimate findings about Gaetz. A few McCarthy allies have even privately suggested using the internal inquiry’s findings to try to oust Gaetz from Congress, if the conclusions are damaging enough.

Yet such premature speculation has also given Gaetz further fodder to claim that the ethics probe was retribution rather than a fairly handled investigation.

Indeed, Gaetz’s allies aren’t shocked either that tempers remain hot between the two men. Another of the eight Republicans who supported the McCarthy ouster, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), predicted that the former speaker is “bitter and will continue on that path” of going after the Floridian for the rest of his political career.

McCarthy allies are expected to get involved in multiple primaries where his foes could prove electorally vulnerable. Earlier this year, they had homed in on Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Bob Good (R-Va.), both of whom voted to oust McCarthy — and other hardliners who backed Gaetz were preparing to face their own challengers.

“Well, I hope [McCarthy] spends a lot of money there,” said Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), another of the so-called Gaetz Eight who opposed the former speaker. “Because Matt will still win, and it’ll divert some of this money away from other people.”

But McCarthy allies predicted that Dimmock’s challenge might fare better than many expect. Brian O. Walsh, a top McCarthy ally who is overseeing efforts to take on members of the infamous “Gaetz Eight,” told POLITICO that he traveled to “Florida’s Panhandle in March to conduct focus groups and left pleased with the findings.“

Some Republicans, however, indicated that the ongoing fight generally isn’t helpful to the party.

“The Kevin-Matt thing is a Kevin-Matt thing, and it’s unfortunate. But these things are going to play out, and we’re going to move on,“ said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who said “no,“ he doesn’t think Dimmock has any chance to beat Gaetz.

Dimmock was a last-minute entrant into the Florida primary, formalizing his bid the night before the filing deadline. One early sign that McCarthy was involved: His campaign committee has the same treasurer as American Patriots PAC, a group tied to McCarthy during the last election cycle.

With more than three months until the Aug. 20 primary, Gaetz is already taking aim at Dimmock’s record.

A campaign committee tied to Gaetz, called Friends of Matt Gaetz, has sought to preempt Dimmock by purchasing a URL for his campaign, painting him as “woke” and including a link for donations to the incumbent. That attack leans on social media posts from 2020 where Dimmock voiced support for diversity and the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Gaetz argued that McCarthy recruited a “D.E.I enthusiast, Black Lives Matter supporter to run against me.”

A Dimmock campaign spokesperson pushed back hard at Gaetz.

“Matt Gaetz’s desperation oozes out of every baseless claim he makes as he attempts to distract voters from his disastrous tenure in Congress. The voters of this district are going to have a clear choice in August: a true conservative outsider with a history of service to country or a desperate career politician who will say anything to hold on to power.”