Who is Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida? He could be a rising star after speaker bid

U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson was finally been elected House Speaker on Wednesday, but before that happened one name kept coming up through rounds of GOP voting: Florida’s Byron Donalds.

Donalds, a sophomore congressman from Southwest Florida, has gained national prominence over the last year, including getting votes in the first election for speaker in January and being widely considered a potential candidate for governor in 2026.

The telegenic Black Republican from Naples could be the candidate the Democrats least want to face as they attempt to recapture the governor’s mansion after nearly three decades out of power, political analysts said, especially compared with another frequently mentioned possibility, the incendiary Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

“The establishment is not going to want Gaetz, and Gaetz will have plenty of opposition,” said Matt Isbell a Democratic elections analyst. “… But I think for Donalds, he’s in a good position just having his name out there.”

From freshman to Speaker candidate

Donalds, who turns 45 on Saturday, was born in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Florida A&M University and Florida State University before starting a career in the finance industry. After an unsuccessful run as a Tea Party candidate for Congress in 2012, he was elected to the state House in 2016 and 2018 and to Congress in 2020.

In his first days in office, he voted to object to President-elect Joe Biden’s electors in Pennsylvania and Arizona, and told Vanity Fair as recently as July that he didn’t believe Biden was the legitimate president.

In January, Donalds was one of a rotating number of candidates to get votes for speaker from a group of GOP House members opposed to Kevin McCarthy, garnering 20 votes over several rounds before the dissidents began casting ballots for other members. McCarthy was elected on the 15th ballot.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, nominated Donalds as a “solid conservative” and “family man,” according to Axios. “There’s an important reason for nominating Byron, and that is, this country needs a change.”

After Gaetz led a successful motion to remove McCarthy earlier this month, Donalds ultimately jumped in the race after both Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan withdrew.

“Look, my pitch is very simple,” Donalds told reporters at the Capitol. “We need to get back to work, secure our border, fund our government responsibly and hold this administration accountable.”

Asked about his lack of leadership experience, he cited his “20 years in the business community,” as well as his chairing committees in the Florida Legislature.

Donalds came in third in Tuesday’s first GOP secret ballot, which chose Tom Emmer of Minnesota as the caucus’s choice for speaker. After Emmer withdrew, Donalds came in second to Johnson in the next few rounds of voting.

Congress vs. Governor’s Mansion

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, compared Donalds losing out on the speaker job to John F. Kennedy missing out on the 1956 vice presidential nomination, which brought JFK into the public eye while also keeping him off a Democratic ticket that lost in a landslide.

“It may better suit him that he has a strong showing in the speakership race but doesn’t actually get it,” Coleman said. “Especially with this narrow Republican majority, it is just a thankless job. The last few Republican speakers have been run out of town basically.”

Already a standout in Congress as the only Black member of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, Donalds could find himself in high demand, said Gregory Koger, a professor of political science at the University of Miami.

“Other members might start asking him to come and speak in their districts at fundraisers, organized groups might ask him to sponsor their legislation,” Koger said. “… Getting this sort of elevated attention, even if you lose, suggests that he’s held in high esteem by his colleagues, and is probably headed towards some sort of higher office or leadership position in the future.”

Because of that, Koger said Donalds shouldn’t cut his congressional career short to make a gubernatorial bid.

“I don’t necessarily see him giving that up to come back to Florida and run for governor, when he has such a bright future ahead within Congress,” Koger said.

Isbell, though, said the last few weeks of congressional chaos and fallen speaker candidates makes a gubernatorial run more likely.

“I would say go for it,” Isbell said. “The House is a mess. … I can’t imagine he’s looking at the leadership and thinking ‘Oh, yeah, this is something I want.’”

If a run for governor doesn’t work out, he said, “He’s still around politics. He could run for something else. The Republicans control the state so there’s always a landing pad for a lot of folks. So if I were advising him, I would say make a play for governor. Get out of Congress.”

Donalds has said he’d be open to a gubernatorial bid, telling Vanity Fair in July, “Oh yeah, I would do it.” But he said, “There’s a lot of other things that have to be answered between saying yes, I would do it and …”

He stopped himself at that point and added, “Nah, come on man, I can’t give you everything.”

Donalds was not available for comment on this story. The Republican Party of Florida did not return requests for comment on this story.

Nikki Fried, the state Democratic chair, said her party is “going to be ready for whatever radical Republican comes out of their primary.”

“I think that all of the individuals that have been participating in the chaos of Washington, D.C., and the destruction of our state here in Florida are going to have a day of reckoning,” she told the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday. “That will start in ‘24, and will continue through ‘26.”

Donalds vs. DeSantis

Donalds has also notably sparred with current Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the man Donalds would be trying to succeed as the leader of the state party. DeSantis is term-limited in 2026.

Donalds, along with almost all of the state’s Republican congressional delegation, endorsed former President Donald Trump over DeSantis for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press: in April, Donalds took issue with DeSantis’ continuing battle with Walt Disney Co., which began when the company’s former CEO criticized the so-called “don’t say gay” law.

Donalds said he agreed that the “original hand slap that happened last legislative session” was appropriate, referring to the decision to dissolve the 1960s-era special district for Walt Disney World that the company controlled.

But, he added, “I do not think that members of Congress, or any state body, should be wielding large amounts of political power against an entity.”

Donalds also pushed back against DeSantis’ defense of the state’s new Black history standards, which includes instructions for students on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

“The new African-American standards in FL are good, robust, & accurate,” Donalds wrote in a tweet. “That being said, the attempt to feature the personal benefits of slavery is wrong & needs to be adjusted. That obviously wasn’t the goal & I have faith that FLDOE [the Florida Department of Education] will correct this.”

Donalds’ willingness to spar with his own party could help him, Coleman said.

“The Republican electorate wants someone who is going to ‘own the libs’ — go take the battle to the other side,” Coleman said. “… But he’s not afraid to kind of throw punches at the Republican side, either. So I think that could be appealing in a primary.”

A Donalds gubernatorial win would be historic, as no Black Republican has served as a governor in any state since Reconstruction and none has ever been elected directly to the position.

Still, Koger said, the record for Black Republican candidates for governor have been mixed when it comes to attracting minority votes.

“It doesn’t move the needle as much as they might hope,” Koger said. “… African American voters have traditionally not easily crossed party lines to support an African American Republican.”

Coleman said that in a state where governor’s races before last year had been razor-thin, including DeSantis’ 0.4 percentage-point win in 2018 over Democrat Andrew Gillum, who is Black, any advantage can help.

“It’s something that could give him a point or two,” Coleman said. “But as we’ve seen in some Florida races? A point or two is a lot.”

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