NAVARRE, Fla. — As his Monday night town hall meeting wrapped up, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) called on a veteran who had a question about benefits and praise for the congressman's work.
"I'd like to congratulate you and Representative Jordan on bringing the Clinton Foundation up for possible prosecution or investigation," Dan Smith said in reference to Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Gaetz smiled as constituents, gathered on the porch of a gulfside barbecue joint, cheered and booed. He and Jordan, he promised, would keep working to expose Hillary Clinton.
"I enjoy being the Robin to his Batman," Gaetz said of Jordan — a veteran of the Benghazi committee beloved by conservatives.
Gaetz, 35, a freshman congressman who has held more public town hall meetings this year than almost any of his Republican peers, has become one of Clinton's most visible antagonists. On Nov. 3, Gaetz introduced a resolution demanding that former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III resign as the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Since then, Gaetz has appeared on cable news shows 20 times to discuss that effort or the need to investigate Clinton.
While GOP leaders have made passing a tax bill their top priority, arguing that it is crucial to the party's electoral future, voters — particularly President Trump's most ardent supporters — have been somewhat disengaged and have exhibited only some of the enthusiasm for the effort that they did for the long Affordable Care Act battle this past summer.
Driving more interest, from town halls to prime-time cable news, are familiar political battles with a partisan edge. The push for another Clinton investigation has been the most reliable, resurfacing in meetings of the House Judiciary Committee and dominating Fox News.
Gaetz, more nimbly than many Republicans, has kept his focus on the issues that excite the base. Like the president, who has continued his feud with "crooked Hillary" more than a year after the 2016 election, Gaetz is in a permanent campaign against what Clinton represents. He represents the view among many Republicans that attacks on Clinton are a way to personalize "the swamp," or the establishment, in a way that connects with their votes more powerfully than anything on the GOP's legislative agenda.
Just six months into his House career, Gaetz joined Jordan and every other Republican on the Judiciary Committee to pass a bill asking for a new probe of how the FBI handled its investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. GOP panel members did so by replacing a Democratic bill — one that would have asked for a fresh investigation into the firing of James B. Comey as director — with a surprise amendment.
Since then, the president has occasionally thrown the Clinton issue back into headlines with a tweet asking why she was not being investigated. The tweets were part of a feedback loop, which included congressional investigations and reports on Fox News that the president watches regularly.
In one example, on Nov. 15, the FBI released emails from Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who became a flash point in the investigation because his wife ran for office with the support of Clinton allies. On Fox, Gaetz highlighted one email in which McCabe explained to the FBI's press team that he had not been involved with the Clinton probe, as "it was referred to as a 'special' and I was not given any details about it." That word — "special" — fit right into GOP questions about whether Clinton got off easily.
"I don't think there's a Democrat or Republican on Capitol Hill who'd hold up the Clinton investigation as a model for future generations to follow," Gaetz said in an interview. "It was sort of a three-ring circus. These McCabe emails are really damn troubling; they highlight a process for Hillary Clinton that was different than anyone else in Washington."
A day in Gaetz's district, which covers the Florida panhandle from Alabama's border halfway to Tallahassee, hinted at what was resonating and what fell flat. Asked about the tax bill, voters confessed that they had heard about it but hadn't dug into the details. Just 28.2 percent of the district's vote had gone to Clinton, and Gaetz, a former state legislator whose father represented much of the district in the state senate, won easily. But voters were unimpressed with Washington's work.
"There is a distrust that the GOP Congress can deliver on the promises it's made," Gaetz said. "That distrust is born of the health-care failure. It's not going to be real to people until they see the president signing it into law. Nobody's waving pompoms yet, and I wouldn't expect them to."
Conservative voters were much more ready to talk about the fate of Clinton. Like Gaetz, they asked whether she received a velvet-gloved treatment from federal investigators looking into her use of a private email server. Clinton, they said, had gotten away with something. A political establishment with no interest in accountability let it happen.
"It's the law," said Ron Williams, a retired agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "Are you above the law, or not? Do we have a political class that's above the law? That's what it comes down to. I don't care. Give her probation. Give her a frickin' felony count. That stuff should not just be swept under the rug."
Even if the Uranium One investigation was messy with no evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton, it was laid out clearly, with heroes and villains — something lacking in the rest of Congress's work.
Like many in his district, Gaetz sounds unenthusiastic, if supportive, about the tax bill party leaders are pushing amid their anxiety that if it fails — there goes the party's control of Congress.
Gaetz did not predict that the tax package would pay for itself with surging revenue. He supported the bill but wanted to cut spending and means-test programs such as Medicare.
"I am not confident that the growth projected will overwhelm the deprivations of the federal budget," Gaetz said. "I wanted to cut spending this year. I lost that fight. Now the sole question is whether to hold taxpayers hostage to Washington's failure to cut spending."
The town hall ended amicably, with Gaetz sticking around to take more personal questions as other constituents polished off barbecue pork sandwiches. When Gaetz returned to Washington, the tax fight and the normal funding of the government were the biggest issues facing the House.
But he isn't letting go of Clinton.
On Thursday, as Senate Republicans began pushing the tax bill to a final vote, Gaetz and two colleagues sent a letter to the FBI, asking Director Christopher A. Wray to answer six questions about the bureau's handling of investigations involving Clinton and Trump: Four of them were about whether Clinton got special treatment, and the other two concerned whether the FBI unfairly surveilled the Trump campaign.
"Oftentimes, conservatives are cast as tinfoil-hat people just for wanting answers on how the Clintons have evaded real scrutiny for decades," Gaetz said. "And now that we have the evidence, that normal procedures were departed from, we need reforms so that this doesn't happen again."