Why Matt Gaetz moved to oust Kevin McCarthy

Here's how to understand why the Florida congressman declared war on the speaker of the House.

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Why did Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican who represents a portion of the Florida panhandle, decide to launch a rebellion that cost the speaker of the House his job?

Gaetz said in the House chamber that he wants to see “a series of reforms” to how Congress spends money through its budget process.

But other Republicans said his motives were far more selfish. Rep. Ashley Hinson, an Iowa Republican speaking during debate in the House chamber, criticized “those causing chaos for their own personal benefit.”

Matt Gaetz.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, center, speaks to members of the media outside the U.S. Capitol on Monday. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg)

There are a few different potential reasons why Gaetz might have seen it in his self-interest to send the House — and the Republican party — into disorder and uncertainty.

There are claims by Kevin McCarthy, the now-ousted Speaker, that Gaetz has a personal vendetta against him over a House ethics probe of Gaetz. There are ways that Gaetz’s chaos mission, and the massive attention it draws him, may help him run for governor of Florida in 2026. There are also a lot of pressures and incentives in modern politics that reward this kind of anti-leadership style.

And, finally, there is the undercurrent of Trumpism that runs through all of it, which fuels whatever support there is for Gaetz from portions of the Republican electorate.

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But all of it runs together and forms a composite source of likely motivation.

Here’s a rundown of each of those wellsprings.

Personal animus

McCarthy, a California Republican whose district includes parts of Fresno and Bakersfield, told CNBC that Gaetz is “blaming me for an ethics complaint against him.”

The House speaker said that an investigation by the House Ethics Committee — looking at potential bribery accusations and allegations that Gaetz broke sex-trafficking laws — “happened in the last Congress” and so he had “nothing to do with it.”

Kevin McCarthy.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, on Tuesday. (Nathan Howard/Bloomberg)

It’s true that the probe was launched in 2021, when Democrats controlled the committee. But after the Justice Department conducted its own investigation and decided this past February not to bring charges, the Ethics Committee — now controlled by Republicans — reopened the Gaetz investigation in July.

McCarthy has said he didn’t have any role in this, and he is not supposed to according to House rules. But McCarthy told CNBC that Gaetz blames him, and CNN’s Jake Tapper told Gaetz Sunday that he had “seen personal communications between you and other people in which you blame McCarthy for your ethics investigation.”

Gaetz didn’t argue with Tapper or deny the assertion.

A Gaetz run for Florida Governor

Gaetz reportedly hinted at a run for governor of Florida in 2026 at a political gathering in the state earlier this month.

Gaetz comes from a political family. His father was a state senator in Florida from 2006 to 2016, and rose to Senate president for two years, from 2012 to 2014. Don Gaetz, Matt Gaetz’s dad, said this week that he will run for state senate again next year.

If Matt Gaetz does run for governor, then using Congress as a platform to build his political profile may pay dividends.

Pressure to be extreme, and rewards

Much of the reason many politicians run away from compromise, collaboration and productivity — and toward divisiveness and fighting — is that there are a multitude of pressures on them to do so. And there are also short-term rewards for such partisanship and gridlock.

Most members of Congress fear one thing more than anything else: losing their jobs. And the quickest way many of them could do so is in a primary election.

Primary elections are where each party chooses a nominee, usually in the spring or summer, ahead of the fall elections that happen every two years. The voters in these elections tend to be the most hardline on politics. These voters want their side to crush the other. They are often angered by politicians who work with the other party and see it as betrayal.

These are the voters who create the pressure on politicians to never give an inch. They exist in higher numbers in states that already lean right or left, and they are further concentrated in many congressional districts through something called “gerrymandering.” This is the redrawing of district boundaries to make it easier for each party to keep winning the seat in the fall elections.

A voter casts a ballot.
A voter casts a ballot while children watch In Louisville, Ky. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

According to a recent report by a group advocating for doing away with party primaries, the vast majority of House members are effectively selected by a tiny sliver — about 10% — of eligible voters.

Extremism can also pays dividends. Attention is a valuable asset in modern politics, and outrage often draws plenty of it.

“The incentive structure in this House is completely broken,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, of North Dakota. He decried members of Congress who chase after “clicks, TV hits” and fame by acting disruptively.

With attention comes the ability to raise large amounts of money over the internet through small dollar donations of $5 and $10, from many of the same type of voters who participate in primaries: hyper-partisans who watch lots of cable TV and see politics as a blood sport. Congress, and the work it exists to do, have become collateral damage.