Gaetz summarizes a Florida conspiracy theory: Democrats are practicing to steal 2020

Phillip Bump | The Washington Post
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks to members of the news media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2, 2018. [ ALEX WROBLEWSKI / BLOOMBERG ]

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., first won election to the House of Representatives two years ago and since has distinguished himself largely on two metrics: number of appearances on Fox News and – overlapping a bit – loyalty to President Donald Trump.

In that latter vein, Gaetz has embraced the president's rhetoric about the still-undecided senate and gubernatorial races in Florida, charging repeatedly on television and on Twitter that Democrats in the state are using illegal ballots to try to steal the election.

In an interview with Breitbart on Tuesday, he ran through those allegations, framing them in a new context. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who leads incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, and Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, who leads Tallahassee's Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum, may be "outside the margin of fraud," but, he claimed, the Democrats are perpetuating fraud anyway so that they know what works to steal the next election. He called it "stress-testing."

"If the Democrats are able to learn now what techniques work and don't work, what transparency laws are going to be followed and which ones aren't, then it gives them a road map on how to steal the election from Donald Trump in 2020," he claimed. "I really think that's what this is about. The resistance movement has changed from, you know, yelling at town halls to yelling in restaurants and now it's actually trying to steal elections they can't win at the ballot box."

"Democrats justify anything they do against Trump as being righteous even if it's morally wrong or even if it's illegal," he claimed at another point, "because they're so driven to stop Trump."

Republican insistence on following the rules, Gaetz claimed, put them at a disadvantage.

"If we allow Democrats to continue this behavior, like, they're not going to get better," he said. "They're not going to treat us better. They're not going to follow the rules more. So we've got to take the gloves off and fight like they do."

"The new conservative movement has to take on Trump's sense of boldness," he said.

Now let's pick all of this apart.

Gaetz is certainly a standard-bearer for embracing Trump's "boldness" in the broader context that can include "willingness to say untrue things that advance your partisan goals." Trump's "boldness" often manifests as throwing punches at the opposition which, Gaetz correctly says at one point, is what much of the Republican base wants to see. But Trump's punches are often rooted in false or misleading information.

As are Gaetz's comments about the vote in Florida. He claims that Broward County added 80,000 ballots from nowhere between Election Day and the final vote count – a number that the Daytona Beach News-Journal interpreted as a reference to provisional ballots that are a common feature of Florida elections. (Asked about this on Fox News, Gaetz didn't clarify.) He claimed that "mystery boxes" of ballots had turned up, perhaps a reference to the discovery of a box labeled "provisional ballots" at a school in Broward County – and which was found to contain no actual ballots. He claimed that Broward County had "more registered voters than she's got eligible registered voters," perhaps a reference to a prominent – and false – online meme alleging that more votes were cast in the county than there are voters. There weren't.

Gaetz claimed that, in Palm Beach County, illegal ballots had been mixed in with legal ballots and would be counted. That appears to be a mistaken reference to a decision made in Broward County to include some 200 provisional ballots in the total count despite the fact that at least 20 had been deemed ineligible. The signatures on the ballots didn't match signatures on file but were cast by registered voters, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Gaetz made another remarkable claim, too.

"Look," he said, "they already flipped an Agriculture Commissioner race. Right? I mean, the Republican won that Agriculture Commission race, and the Democrat is up now."

That Republican, state representative Matt Caldwell, didn't "win" the race. It was called for him by some outlets, but, as more votes were counted, his Democratic opponent took the lead - as early as last Wednesday. Caldwell is suing Broward County in an effort to regain the lead, but at no point was it won in his favor.

This mirrors Trump's rhetoric, too. Whoever had the lead when the initial vote tally was done on Election Day is the winner and any votes counted after that point, it seems, are somehow invalid or suspect. As the New York Times's David Leonhardt noted on Twitter, though, that only seems to be applicable in cases where the Republican led on the night of the election.

Unmentioned by Gaetz: There's been no evidence of actual fraud. There was an alleged issue with altered forms purportedly sent out by the Democratic Party, but beyond vague allegations, there's been nothing to suggest the vote in Florida was tainted in any significant way. Despite people looking.

Gaetz made the case to keep swinging away regardless.

"The biggest threat to the Trump movement is that Republicans in office demoralize our base because the only way we win now is by driving turnout among our voters," Gaetz said. "And if our voters just think we're weak, we don't fight, we don't do the things we say when we get elected? Then there is no future for us."

He appears to have taken that idea to heart.