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Matt Gaetz is drawing ire from his colleagues — but he's as popular as ever back home

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

After the unprecedented vote Tuesday to oust the speaker of the House, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz was exactly where he wanted to be - at the center of media attention.

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MATT GAETZ: I think that this represents the ripping off of the Band-Aid, and that's what we need to do to get back on track.

SHAPIRO: The people angriest at Gaetz for the removal of Kevin McCarthy from the speakership have been his Republican House colleagues, but back home in his district, NPR's Greg Allen reports Gaetz is more popular than ever.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Matt Gaetz has been making political waves in Florida for a long time. The son of Florida's former Senate president, he was first elected to the state legislature 13 years ago. The head of Florida's Democratic Party, Nikki Fried, says she first got to know Gaetz when he was just a high school student, and as a college undergrad, she was helping run a debate tournament.

NIKKI FRIED: And he was actually kicked out of our student Congress for being disrespectful, disruptive and getting his way or the highway. And so, unfortunately, these are the patterns of who Matt Gaetz is.

ALLEN: For some who've watched Gaetz's career, first as a member of the state house and now as a congressman, his actions this week are not entirely surprising. He's defended those who took part in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. He famously wore a gas mask on the floor of the House at the height of the COVID pandemic. A big Trump supporter, to protest the former president's first impeachment, he organized an attempted breach of a secure facility where the proceedings were going on. But for some conservative Republicans in his district, Gaetz was all talk and no action.

RENEE JOHNMEYER: I felt like it was a lot of word service in that he was just saying things and that he wasn't making things happen.

ALLEN: Renee Johnmeyer (ph) is active in Santa Rosa County's Republican Party. At a Republican club meeting at a local restaurant, she said after his actions this week engineering the ouster of the House speaker and bringing Congress to a screeching halt, she has new respect for her congressman.

JOHNMEYER: To see him actually step up and out and do something that is going to move the party in a different direction, I was happy to see that.

ALLEN: Gaetz's congressional district on Florida's panhandle is one of the most Republican in the state, easily won reelection every term since first going to Congress in 2016. Adam Cayton, an associate professor of political science at the University of West Florida, says Gaetz's style plays well in today's GOP.

ADAM CAYTON: He's combative, bombastic, conservative, doesn't shy away from very public conflict. So he's tapping into the same strain of feeling that is propelling Donald Trump to the leadership of the Republican Party.

ALLEN: At the Republican club meeting in Santa Rosa County, Patty Burke (ph) said she's been active in Republican politics for nearly 20 years and watched Gaetz's rise from Tallahassee to Washington. She conceded Republicans could now be seen as a party in disarray.

PATTY BURKE: It might be a risk for him. I'm glad he did it. In my view, the more the Congress isn't doing anything, the better off Americans are.

ALLEN: Among these Republican activists in Santa Rosa County, there's a deep dissatisfaction that Democrats control the Senate and the White House. George Osma (ph) said he's happy with the turn of events, but he's not sure if Gaetz's actions will help the Republican Party in the long term.

GEORGE OSMA: Ask me a year from now, and I might be able to tell you. Republicans, over many, many years, we're always told we have to compromise, but whenever we do, we get nothing and they get everything they want. It just seems like that over and over and over again.

ALLEN: As for Matt Gaetz, this week's events have raised his national profile. He's running for reelection in a safe congressional seat, but there's talk now that he may be raising his sights and considering a run for governor. After this week, Gaetz has gained name recognition, but there's a question about whether his in-your-face conservative politics would work in a run for statewide office. University of West Florida political scientist Adam Cayton says there's a recent precedent.

CAYTON: I mean, it's worth remembering that our current governor was a Tea Party-affiliated right-wing congressman with an anti-establishment brand.

ALLEN: Gaetz says he has no plans to run for governor, but political observers know that plans do often change. The one job Gaetz says he's definitely not interested in is speaker of the House. Greg Allen, NPR News, Pensacola, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.