The latest front in the Gaetz vs. McCarthy fight: House primaries

Republicans are desperate to avoid nasty primaries next year. But the architect of Kevin McCarthy’s ouster from the speakership has other plans.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is continuing to buck party leadership, which has tried to coalesce early this cycle behind candidates in key races. Gaetz has instead thrown his support to other congressional hopefuls in several of those races, and his megaphone has already helped upend one of them.

Gaetz, a prominent figure of the most conservative wing of the GOP, endorsed J.R. Majewski — who lost his bid last year after a report he misrepresented his combat duty — in the high-stakes race for Ohio’s 9th District House seat. Gaetz has also voiced support for former Nevada state Sen. Elizabeth Helgelien, who’s running to the right in Nevada’s 3rd District, and for Darren Bailey, an unsuccessful 2022 Illinois gubernatorial candidate who is now challenging Republican Rep. Mike Bost in IL-12.

The common theme among these candidates who have caught Gaetz’s attention: They’re all ultra-conservatives who are running in primaries against candidates backed by McCarthy.

McCarthy threw his weight around in competitive races early in the 2024 cycle, including endorsing state Rep. Heidi Kasama in NV-03 and former state Rep. Craig Riedel in OH-09, both of which are top targets for national Republicans. McCarthy has also boosted Bost’s reelection bid and spoken out against Bailey for challenging the incumbent.

Gaetz rebuffed the suggestion that he is supporting candidates because they are running against Republicans who have McCarthy’s backing.

“He’s old news. Mike Johnson’s speaker now,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz has long clashed with McCarthy, refusing to vote for him during the marathon speakership vote in January. Gaetz then led the charge in ejecting McCarthy from his leadership post earlier this year, throwing the House into chaos for nearly a month and drawing the ire of fellow members of his party. It was a blow to establishment Republicans, who were already grappling with their thin majority in the House.

Now, with McCarthy retiring — just months after being removed — Gaetz is going after some of his chosen candidates.

Candidate quality nearly cost Republicans the House majority in 2022, with some far-right candidates losing key races. Majewski was one of those candidates, plagued by ads from Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur hitting him as an “extremist” for being on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, 2021. Another was Bailey, whom Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker labeled as too extreme during his 2022 gubernatorial run.

IL-12 is a safe Republican district, so the primary victor will likely have a smooth path to the general election — although a messy primary is not a good look for Republicans, who are still trying to rehabilitate their image after the speakership drama earlier this year. But OH-09 and NV-03 are both battlegrounds, and losses in such districts could cost the party its majority.

Gaetz brushed aside questions about backing conservative Republicans who may go on to lose the general election.

“Primaries are a really important part of the political process,” he said. “It shows the direction the party is moving.”

A spokesperson for McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment. The NRCC declined to comment.

Republican leaders were already thrown for a loop after Gaetz helped upend the OH-09 race.

Riedel was a top recruit to take on Kaptur, earning the endorsement of House leadership over the summer. But after an audio clip surfaced of him calling former President Donald Trump “arrogant” and saying the party needs to “go in a different direction,” he faces a difficult primary — one that could end up elevating Majewski anyway.

Gaetz endorsed Majewski in November and this month shared the audio clip of Riedel, writing that he is a “RINO never-Trumper.” In the following days, Riedel bled support. Rep. Max Miller rescinded his endorsement because of his comments. Sen. J.D. Vance announced his backing of Majewski, as did Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

After the clip was shared, Riedel endorsed Trump and blamed Gaetz for pulling a “stunt.” (Gaetz has denied involvement in the recording.) Republican leadership then scrambled to recruit state Rep. Derek Merrin for the race. With Riedel staying in, there’s a possibility that Merrin and Riedel will split the anti-Majewski vote and send him to the general election — a scenario similar to what happened last year.

The incident demonstrates the domino effect Gaetz’s involvement can have, given his prominence — and the headache it can cause national Republicans.

Gaetz said he does not normally endorse candidates until they’re on the ballot, an exception he made for Majewski before Ohio’s Dec. 20 filing deadline because he said he “got totally screwed by the Air Force.” A report from The Associated Press a month before the 2022 election said Majewski, an Air Force veteran, never deployed to Afghanistan as he had suggested, and that he also mischaracterized his professional career. That caused national Republicans to pull their support from him. Majewski lost to Kaptur by 13 points in 2022.

“We’re proud to have the endorsement of Congressman Gaetz and many of his colleagues on the Hill and I look forward to working alongside these America First leaders to tackle the issues important to the people of Ohio’s 9th including energy dominance and securing the border,” Majewski said in a statement.

Gaetz drew a distinction between an endorsement and showing support for a candidate, like he did for Bailey in his race against Bost. After Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) endorsed Bailey, Gaetz shared it on X, formerly known as Twitter, writing “Bailey > Bost.” Gaetz continued to vocally support Bailey, even without formally endorsing him. (There were high tensions between Gaetz and Bost during the fight for the speakership.)

Similarly, Gaetz shared a video of Helgelien speaking on her border policies, urging his followers to “send backup like this.” He also reshared her launch video and accompanying fundraising plea.


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