TAMPA, Fla. — U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz headlined an evening of (mostly) Republican Party unity in Tampa on Saturday night, as federal, state, and local lawmakers dismissed the ongoing Democratic-controlled House impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

  • Hillsborough GOP hosts dinner for state party leaders
  • Number of Hillsborough Republican women were honored
  • Ronda Storms said GOP wasn't tough enough on abortion
  • Rep. Matt Gaetz was keynote speaker for Kayleigh McEnany

“The impeachment of Donald Trump is the Democratic excuse for the lack of an agenda or an agenda that is downright terrified of the American people,” Gaetz said before about 300 people who gathered for the Hillsborough County Lincoln Day Dinner at The Event Factory, a banquet hall located inside a Town 'n' Country strip mall.

“Their ends justify their means, they believe, and they will stop at nothing for the pursuit of power, up to and including the soft revolution to overthrow and unseat a duly elected president,” added U.S. Rep. Ross Spano from Dover. “And that is what we are seeing right before our eyes today.” (Spano is now under investigation by the Department of Justice for alleged campaign finance violations. He did not speak with reporters).

Republican Party of Florida Chairman and Sarasota-based state Sen. Joe Gruters said before the event that internal polls the party has taken show the president to be leading in Florida against an unknown Democratic challenger, “but what this whole impeachment thing has done is, it’s empowered our base to come together to coalesce around the president, and we’re going to have more money, more volunteers, and more energy and excitement.”

Other Republican lawmakers in attendance included Rep. Gus Bilirakis, state Sen. Tom Lee, and state Reps. Jackie Toledo and Mike Beltran.

Ex-Hillsborough Commissioner Goes on Riff

But there was one discordant voice in what was otherwise an evening of celebration of Republican politics in the Sunshine State — a state that Republican strategists have publicly stated Trump must win to have a chance of reelection in 2020.

That came from a controversial blast from the past: former Hillsborough County Commissioner and state Sen. Ronda Storms.

Storms was among a number of Hillsborough Republican women who were honored by the local party during the event, receiving a lifetime achievement award for her service on the Board of County Commissioners (1998-2006) and state Senate (2006-2012). 

But unlike the other honored recipients who paused for a photo and then moved off stage after having their name called, Storms grabbed the microphone and proceeded to verbally bash Republican legislative leaders in Tallahassee who she accused of being soft on abortion and criminal justice issues.

Saying it was time for a “family conversation,” Storms said she agreed with an earlier comment that the Florida GOP was “not the far left. But we also don’t want to be left-lite.”

“We are becoming as a party hostile to pro-life issues,” she then said, quieting the crowd. “We have a Florida House, right? A Republican Florida Senate and a Republican governor. It is to our shame that we are the only Republican-controlled state in this nation that did nothing on right-to-life last year.”

A number of conservative-leaning state legislatures around the country have in the past year passed so called “heartbeat” bills that would prohibit abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, though none have gone into effect because of court challenges. Pensacola Republican Rep. Mike Hill filed such a bill during the 2019 session, but it didn't receive a hearing (he has filed a similar bill in advance of the 2020 session beginning in January).

The only abortion-related bill that had any traction was a bill that would require teenage girls to have parental consent before undergoing an abortion. It easily passed the House but never reached the Senate floor. However, the same bill (sponsored in the Senate by Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel) appears to be a fast-track for the 2020 session.

Storms then went off on a verbal riff against the modest push in recent years by Florida Republicans (led by St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes) to reform some of Florida’s most onerous criminal justice laws. While several "red" states in the South have passed such reforms, Florida has been decidedly behind the curve. There’s more talk than ever in Tallahassee about reversing some criminal penalties next year, but Storms argued passionately against it — and did so in dramatically personal terms.

“Two years ago, I was attacked in a Publix parking lot by two men,” she said, describing that “a person” came up from behind her, knocked her down, and then dragged her by her hair and arms to her car.

She didn’t finish how the confrontation ended but immediately segued into a complaint that the juvenile offender who attacked her had his charges “stepped down” to purse-snatching. 

“It is wrong for the Republican Party. It is wrong for families. It is wrong for you. And it is wrong for me,” she said of the efforts to reduce some criminal penalties that have become embraced by conservative and progressive groups around the country. 

“I’m saying to you: Stop it. But you know what? The senators will not listen to you. The House members will not listen to you. Unless you talk to them about the victims.”

Gaetz Steps in for McEnany

Storms's comments took the focus off the theme of the evening, which was all about creating the local support to reelect Trump next year. While the president won Florida by 1.2 percent in 2016, he lost Hillsborough County to Hillary Clinton by nearly 7 points.

Gruters boasted that the Republican Party of Florida will build the “largest grassroots army that this state has ever seen, and we’re going to work with Hillsborough to make sure that we deliver the 29 electoral votes that our president needs so he wins reelection next year.”

Gruters also spoke about the rumors that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may step down to run for the U.S. Senate in Kansas. That’s led to speculation that Trump could replace him with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

“The reason why he’d be a great secretary of state is that would open up the U.S. Senate position for Donald Trump’s favorite congressman in America, Matt Gaetz, to be our new U.S. senator!” Gruters said to cheers.

Gaetz played with the idea when he took to the stage for a 33-minute address that was loaded with one-liners and potshots at Democrats.

“Thank you, Joe Gruters, for spiking a lot of political intrigue and controversy. I’ll make a little news for you: If the time is right, and the circumstances fall, I will proudly be a candidate to coach the (Florida State) Seminoles in the upcoming year…” 

Gaetz was originally listed in the program as the warmup act to Kayleigh McEnany, the national press secretary for the Trump reelection team and former CNN analyst, who was the scheduled headliner. However, McEnany was a no-show for a pretty good reason: She had just birthed a child, organizers said.

Prior to entering the event, reporters were required to sign an “agreement” promising to remain in a designated area, and they weren't allowed to speak to anyone inside the room where the speeches took place.