MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is gunning for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, attacking the embattled GOP leader from the right and aligning himself with insurgent conservatives in Congress who are threatening a government shutdown.
What started as a private strategy session last week between DeSantis and House hardliners has now erupted into a frontal attack on McCarthy. On Monday, DeSantis ridiculed McCarthy’s record on government spending and accused him of being complicit in running up a massive federal debt balance. On Tuesday, the governor's campaign sent out an email admonishing McCarthy all over again while urging House Republicans to buck the speaker in the current government funding negotiations.
McCarthy is one of former President Donald Trump’s closest allies in Congress and has relied on the former president’s support to keep him in the speakership. While he has not formally endorsed Trump for president, McCarthy said in a Fox News interview over the weekend that Trump was a more formidable candidate than DeSantis.
That drew a cannon blast response from the Florida governor.
“Kevin McCarthy says I’m a little different from Donald Trump. I agree,” DeSantis posted on social media Monday. “In Florida, we run budget surpluses. We’ve paid down our debt. I’ve kept every one of my promises. Meanwhile, McCarthy and Trump worked together to add $7 trillion — more debt than our country racked up in its first 200 years — to the debt in just four years.”
The attack on McCarthy returns DeSantis to his own political roots, as a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus — a group that is now a key focal point for opposition to McCarthy and his proposed deal for spending reductions. POLITICO reported last week that DeSantis spoke by phone with several members of the group — including Reps. Chip Roy, Thomas Massie and Bob Good — and urged them to “keep fighting” in their standoff over efforts to keep the government open.
“It’s an opportunity for Gov. DeSantis to identify with the grassroots base of the Republican Party and implicitly challenge President Trump to do the same,” said Justin Sayfie, a partner at the lobbying firm Ballard Partners who has fundraised for DeSantis.
A close DeSantis ally, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity, stressed that the governor's current posture was grounded in his belief that spending needed to be cut. But the ally did not push back on the idea that some of it was driven by a cool relationship with McCarthy. They noted that the speaker, inherently, "represents the Washington establishment" and that McCarthy, specifically, had been favorable to Trump even without endorsing him.
A point of particular contention was the rule change adopted, by the California GOP, that made it so if any Republican presidential candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary they would win all the state's 169 delegates.
"He was involved in what the California GOP did to rig the vote out there for Trump," the ally said of McCarthy. "He's signing his own death warrant. If Trump is the nominee, he can kiss his speakership goodbye. We will lose the house and there will be total Democratic control."
For DeSantis, the feud provides him a few talking points on the campaign trail, including bragging about how he managed his home state and boosting his image as an anti-Washington candidate. It comes as DeSantis has faced growing scrutiny from Republican donors and a lagging campaign operation that has had to reset several times.
It also gives him a way to pick at possible conservative misgivings about elements of Trump’s record. The former president has a massive lead in the polls and so far his challengers, including DeSantis, have largely hesitated to criticize him for places where his record in office diverged from hard-right orthodoxy, including his loose approach to government spending.
“Right now, what you have is unfortunately a large block of House GOP members who are, frankly, too afraid to take on Trump,” said Roy, who is one of the few members of Congress to endorse DeSantis.
But some DeSantis supporters didn't like that McCarthy fired back. Roy said he viewed McCarthy’s dig against DeSantis as a “misfire," saying that "he shouldn't be in the business of" comparing DeSantis to Trump.
"He's got his hands full running the House," he said.
Congressional Republicans who endorsed Trump, however, pushed back on DeSantis.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) said DeSantis doesn’t have many relationships on the Hill — most of the Florida delegation, including Steube, has endorsed Trump — and Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) said he didn’t understand why DeSantis would oppose McCarthy.
“If I was him, I think I’d attach myself to Speaker McCarthy,” Rutherford said. “I think he’s doing a good job at leading this conference, and [DeSantis] was part of the conference when he was up here. He knows Kevin well.”
A small irony in this is that some Republicans credit DeSantis with helping flip the House in 2022 to GOP control, albeit a very narrow majority. Republicans in Florida and nationally heaped praise on DeSantis after the midterms for leaning on the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature to approve congressional redistricting maps that helped net Republicans an additional four congressional seats.
Absent that outcome in Florida, McCarthy, whose staff did not immediately respond to a requests for comment, would likely not be speaker at all.
DeSantis, his critics say, also hasn’t been as savings-conscious as he lets on. Steube pointed out that Florida was constitutionally obligated to balance its budget annually and said “the country would be in a good place” if the same were true at the federal level. And DeSantis in 2021 also rejected Sen. Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) call for governors to return federal pandemic relief funds, instead using that pot of money to pay for his own priorities — often with great fanfare.
Scott, however, demurred when asked about it in Tallahassee on Monday. "I’ve given people the opportunity to give money back to the federal government and people get to choose whether they do that or not," he said.
Sam Stein and Mia McCarthy contributed from Washington, D.C., and Gary Fineout contributed from Tallahassee.