House

Gaetz set to endorse primary opponent of fellow Florida GOP lawmaker

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) will endorse the primary opponent of Rep. Ross Spano (R), a fellow Florida congressman under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) over a possible campaign finance violation.

Gaetz's camp is casting the decision to endorse Scott Franklin as a response to House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney's (Wyo.) support of a primary challenger to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). 

Gaetz and other Republicans criticized Cheney at a House GOP conference meeting two weeks ago over that issue. They also questioned whether Cheney was sufficiently loyal to President Trump. 

After the meeting, Gaetz publicly called on Cheney to step down from leadership. 

Cheney later pulled the support from Massie's primary opponent after the opponent came under criticism for racist tweets. 

During the heated conference meeting, Gaetz questioned whether leadership would be playing in primaries and asserted that he would be happy to get involved in primary races if that was the case.

Sources close to Gaetz said the DOJ's investigation into Spano's potential campaign finance violation also sparked his decision to back Franklin, the Lakeland city commissioner.

Spano dismissed Gaetz's endorsement, noting the number of endorsements he's received within the GOP conference. 

"I'm not surprised by Rep. Gaetz's endorsement. He endorsed my primary opponent last time," he said in a statement.

 

He added that he has the support of many other Republicans, including: Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.); House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.); Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.); House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.); National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer (Minn.); and Reps. Michael Waltz (Fla.), Mario Diaz Balart (Fla.), Daniel Webster (Fla.), Vern Buchanan (Fla.), Greg Steube (Fla.), and Gus Bilirakis (Fla.).

 

In his statement Spano also said he has "stood with President Trump during my first term," and boasted support from the Club For Growth, National Rifle Association, House Conservative Fund, National Right to Life PAC, Florida Right to Life PAC, National Family Research Council PAC, and Gun Owners of America.

 

House GOP leaders rarely get involved in primary battles. Massie had angered lawmakers in both parties and President Trump earlier this year after he threatened to hold up consideration of a coronavirus relief package.

 

Cheney described her initial steps into Massie's primary as an exception, arguing that the Kentucky Republican was a "special case" and the Kentucky Republican's "problem was with the president, not me," a reference to Trump calling for Massie to be thrown out of the GOP on Twitter. Massie denied his problem was with the president.

 

Spano has received endorsements from the majority of the Florida delegation in addition to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Cheney and NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).

 

The House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into Spano in September for allegedly accepting roughly $180,000 in improper loans from friends and using it for his congressional campaign as if they were personal funds. Under campaign finance law, candidates are not capped on personal funding their campaigns, but contributions from others are limited to $2,700.

 

The DOJ announced it was launching an investigation into the matter in November. Spano has been cooperating with the investigation and has since repaid the loans.

 

"If Ross Spano is the Republican nominee for Florida's 15th congressional district, it will weaken the President. Specifically, Ross Spano is weakened by an active DOJ investigation against him. He has not shown the ability to gather the political support or resources necessary to win a competitive election in a swing state," one source close to Gaetz said.

 

Spano was first elected to the GOP-leaning district during 2018 midterm election cycle.

 

The primary is set to take place on Aug. 18.

 

This story was updated at 2:10 p.m.; 7 p.m.

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