Rep. Matt Gaetz finds himself playing defense in his GOP primary and has brought in "MAGA" allies in Congress to campaign in Northwest Florida.
Gaetz brought Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordon to Pensacola on Saturday, which drew a packed crowd to the Sanders Beach Community Center. On Monday, Gaetz made three stops in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties with Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert.
Mark Lombardo, a former FedEx executive and Marine Corps veteran running against Gaetz, has pledged to spend $1 million of his own money to take on the incumbent. Gaetz also has another primary challenger in Greg Merk, but Lombardo appears to be the bigger threat with more than $740,000 of funding toward his campaign.
Primary elections 2022: Your complete guide to Escambia, Santa Rosa races and candidates
Mark Lombardo's negative attack ads against Gaetz
Over the last several weeks, Lombardo has been running a series of negative attack ads on television blasting Gaetz and has spent more than $340,000 so far, according to campaign finance reports.
Many of the Lombardo ads hit Gaetz for being under federal investigation in connection with sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl. Gaetz has vehemently denied all accusations of wrongdoing and has not been charged.
"We expect our leaders to meet high standards of performance and conduct," Lombardo said in an ad released earlier this month. "Matt Gaetz isn't meeting those standards."
The most recent Lombardo ad targets Gaetz for hiring an attorney who also represented sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Gaetz accuses Lombardo of being a 'liberal'
Gaetz has unleashed his campaign war chest, hitting back against Lombardo and accusing him of being a "liberal" by tying a founder of the political consulting firm Lombardo hired for his campaign to a nonprofit group that works with musicians to register people to vote at music events, including Pride events.
Gaetz's campaign has outspent Lombardo to date, spending $526,000 in advertising alone, according to his campaign's latest finance report. Gaetz has spent a total of $802,788 on his campaign since July.
The attacks did not appear to dampen the mood of Gaetz supporters on Saturday. The main hall at Corrine Jones Resource Center was standing room only with several hundred people filling the room to hear from Gaetz and Jordan.
Gaetz never mentioned Lombardo by name Saturday, but referred to his "Republican opponent" having the "gall not just to attack me, but to attack Jim Jordan."
"I am going to ask you to get out there and vote like crazy for me," Gaetz said. "I need you to bring your friends, your relatives, I don't even care if they're not your friends, bring them. Get folks out to vote because we want that strong showing of support."
Gaetz's remarks Saturday consisted of a back and forth with Jordan in which they promised if they retook power in the House, they would launch an investigation into abuse of power by the Department of Justice and would push forward a bill to restore the military careers of service members who were discharged for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
Jordan is set to become chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee if Republicans win control in November.
'Women Against Matt Gaetz' protested his visit
Outside of the event, a smaller but still sizeable group of more than 75 people wearing pink shirts as part of the group "Women Against Matt Gaetz" protested his visit.
Since being elected in 2016 and declaring he wanted to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, Gaetz has nearly always drawn protesters in Pensacola campaign visits, but Saturday's was the largest crowd to actively picket the congressman.
The group was created and quickly grew to more than 5,800 members after Gaetz made disparaging comments about female abortion rights advocates at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit, saying "Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb."
Gaetz acknowledged the protesters outside Saturday and said the group would probably get more media attention than him.
"They'll say, 'While a few people gathered to support Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, there were 50 people outside!' I didn't know there were 50 Democrats in Florida's 1st Congressional District," Gaetz said "Maybe they were joined by a little bit of a RINO stampede out there, too."
A "RINO" or "Republican-in-name-only" stampede may be Gaetz's biggest vulnerability if he drives away more moderate Republicans.
Escambia County, the largest county in Gaetz's district, voted 55% in favor of Gaetz in the last election, which was three percentage points fewer than Trump won that same year and a loss of five points compared to the 2016 election.
Though Gaetz was able to win the entire district by nearly a 30% margin, the loss of vote share in Escambia County indicates more moderate Republicans have left Gaetz.
It was a friendlier crowd two days later when Gaetz, with Boebert, took his "Shall Not Be Infringed Tour" to Precision Tactical Arms Company in Crestview.
There were no protesters in sight, and supporters Bernadette Pittman and Lucy Boatwright elicited friendly honks from passersby as they stood waving, surrounded by "Keep Gaetz Fighting" signs.
About 70 avid supporters filed into the business, whose walls were lined with firearms, ahead of Gaetz's arrival. Many sported MAGA hats or ball caps touting their military service. At least one person in the crowd had on a "Democrats Suck" T-shirt, and for sale in the window was another shirt calling for a Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis ticket in 2024 that would "Make America Florida."
Gaetz arrived with Boebert, a fellow House member and firebrand Republican. Gaetz promised that if re-elected, he would be the "strongest member of Congress fighting for our gun rights and our Second Amendment rights."
Boebert boasted she and Gaetz had become "professional RINO (Republican in Name Only) hunters."
Longtime Republican strategist Ryan Wiggins, who worked for Gaetz's first primary campaign in 2016, told the News Journal that Gaetz's rhetoric had driven away moderate Republicans.
Lombardo could appeal to the feeling of dissatisfaction with Gaetz, but Wiggins said he probably got into the race too late.
"Matt will probably see his way through the primary, but again he is alienating a large chunk of his base that is more on the moderate side," Wiggins said. "… If (Lombardo) had gotten in earlier, I think he could've made more waves with the amount of money he brought into his campaign. He just needed more time to campaign."
Northwest Florida Daily News reporter Tom McLaughlin contributed to this story.
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Matt Gaetz plays defense in Northwest Florida primary battle