The Villages, Fla. — “Some people think my hair is a toupee. It’s not. Who would have a toupee this bad?”
Laughter ripples across the Savannah Center auditorium in this central Florida retirement community, but Trey Gowdy is just getting started. He’ll crack many such jokes on Monday, delighting 600-plus audience members with an easy, affable charm as he takes their questions. One might be forgiven for forgetting that Gowdy recently presided over Hillary Clinton’s 11-hour grilling in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Gowdy, 51, has been reluctant to be used as a political football. He has said that the weeks leading up to Clinton’s hearing — during which he found himself defending the Benghazi Committee from a flood of critics questioning its motives — were among the worst of his life. But as 2016 House and Senate races begin to heat up, he’s emerging as a much coveted surrogate for GOP candidates.
On Monday, Gowdy is here for a town hall with Florida representative Ron DeSantis, 37, the tea-party favorite currently running a hotly contested race for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat. The packed auditorium, peopled by a sea of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump supporters, underscores not only DeSantis’s surge of support from the grassroots, but also Gowdy’s rising star along the GOP campaign trail.
Gowdy doesn’t officially endorse candidates — “for lots of reasons, number one that nobody cares what I think,” he tells National Review — but says he’s had a “unique perch” in the Judiciary Committee, where he serves alongside DeSantis, from which to observe the Florida congressman’s preparedness and sharp questioning in hearings.
“For me to stick around and watch a freshman or sophomore congressman ask questions in a committee is rare. Life’s usually too short for me to do that.”
“I’m going to let the people of Florida to decide who they want their nominee to be,” he adds, “but if you can bear witness to someone, then you should bear witness to them.”
Gowdy’s political star was naturally burnished in 2014, when he was named chairman of the Benghazi committee. Since then, his days have been consumed by transcripts, watch logs, and tapes related to the killing of four Americans by Islamic militants on September 11, 2012. It’s a crusade that has made him something of a folk hero in conservative circles, as the audience at the DeSantis event makes clear. Attendees persist in questioning Gowdy about his political ambitions: one presses him on why he didn’t run for Speaker of the House, another on whether he’d take the job of Attorney General if asked in 2017.
Gowdy was in many ways set to become a household name for conservatives before his congressional career even began.
But Gowdy was in many ways set to become a household name for conservatives before his congressional career even began. He left his post as solicitor of South Carolina’s seventh judicial circuit to challenge Republican incumbent Bob Inglis, who had come under fire from the conservative base for his outspoken support of cap-and-trade. He easily defeated Inglis by 12 points, and went on to become one of the most vocal freshmen in the tea-party class of 2010, criticizing Speaker John Boehner for his failure to lead on the debt-ceiling crisis and the Fast and Furious scandal.
It’s a trajectory that makes Gowdy a sought-after surrogate for conservative candidates across the nation this cycle, including Marco Rubio, who recently enlisted Gowdy’s help at a highly publicized fundraiser in Dallas. Now, he’s dipping his toes into Senate races, and his vocal support of DeSantis, who’s up against two popular candidates in the Republican primary, could help break the logjam.
DeSantis rode the tea-party wave into office in 2012, and boasts a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union — the top rating among all Florida politicians — for stances including his opposition to the recent budget deal and reauthorization of the Ex-Im bank. A Freedom Caucus member and Iraq War veteran, he’s notched the support of grassroots activists like those in attendance Monday, and garnered early endorsements from conservative groups such as Club for Growth and Freedom Works. It would be hard for anyone in the crowded field of GOP primary contenders to outflank him from the right.
His two main rivals are Representative David Jolly, largely seen as a moderate, and Florida lieutenant governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a longtime friend of Rubio. Based on the most recent polling, Jolly edges the pack with 18 percent, while DeSantis and Lopez-Cantera claim 15 percent and 14 percent respectively. Democrats have their own tight primary race between Representatives Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy, and general-election polling remains close. In Republicans’ quest to maintain their Senate majority, a strong GOP nominee in the battleground state of Florida is critical.
In such a wide-open race, endorsements take on an outsized importance. But no high-profile nods from the Beltway have yet been announced, making Gowdy’s appearance — even if he didn’t give his official imprimatur — a significant coup for DeSantis.
“Here we are in central Florida and people want a guy from South Carolina to be their speaker of the House,” DeSantis says. “It’s a testament to how Trey has conducted himself since he’s been in Congress. . . . I knew that there would be a lot of interest in coming to see him.”
Other Republicans awaiting a jolt of support from Capitol Hill will surely take notice of Gowdy’s new willingness to hit the stump, eager to brandish their conservative credentials to voters. For now, the question remains: Who’s next?
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.