TAMPA, Fla. — The tongue-in-cheek digital campaign ad mirrors the script of an insurance commercial, where “Jake for State House” is reminiscent of the State Farm spokesperson, with a Republican twist.
But for a subset of voters, there’s a wink within the joke: The other man in the ad is a well-known right-wing social media star named Rogan O’Handley, known online as DC Draino.
Jake Hoffman, a candidate running for a Tampa state House seat in District 65, is betting that O’Handley’s following (over 2 million on Instagram alone) will boost his candidacy among conservative voters.
“It’s a game changer,” Hoffman said. “You’re getting organic reach that you’d normally have to spend tens of thousands of dollars for.”
O’Handley, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, is part of a growing community of MAGA-brand influencers who have emerged from or relocated to this region in recent years, forging an ecosystem of provocative conservative content.
Yet these purveyors of right-wing hot takes and, at times, disinformation, are no longer leaving mere online footprints. They are seeking to expand their reach from the internet into the real world of backroom politics and government policymaking. With former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago and Republican Ron DeSantis residing in the governor’s mansion, they are increasingly finding access to the corridors of power.
Tampa Bay’s new residents include politics podcaster Austen Fletcher, known as Fleccas, who co-hosts with a meme-maker known publicly only as his username, Richard Ratboy; and Newsmax host Benny Johnson. A former journalist for BuzzFeed before being fired for plagiarism in 2014, Johnson has 1 million followers on Instagram. He now owns a $1.5 million house in South Tampa.
Grant Godwin, who runs a Republican meme account called @the_typical_liberal with 2.6 million Instagram followers, lives in St. Petersburg, according to his social media. Michael Hennessey, who’s behind another Instagram meme account called Snowflake News with nearly 70,000 followers, lives in Palm Harbor.
Rob Smith, a right-wing media personality who hosts a podcast and also founded a group focused on promoting Black conservatives, has also frequently posted photos of himself in the Tampa Bay area at local bars and the St. Pete Pier, but it’s unclear if he’s a local resident.
Additionally, Rumble, a video streaming platform used by conservatives, moved their headquarters to Longboat Key last year, and Trump’s media company that owns his social media site, called Truth Social, is registered in Sarasota.
Hoffman has lined up videos with five other conservative influencers in Tampa Bay in addition to O’Handley, saying the power of their brands is a more modern and cost-effective way to reach people than mailers or TV ads.
“It’s like Taylor Swift posting about a governor candidate,” Hoffman said. “All of a sudden, a million people pay attention.”
Tampa Bay is “growing as a conservative hub for the patriot movement,” said David Leatherwood, an influencer who lives in St. Petersburg and has around 23,000 Instagram followers. Leatherwood is known online by the moniker Brokeback Patriot because his brand centers around being a Republican who is gay.
“It comes down to visibility,” he said, noting that Tampa Bay is an important swing region. “If we can all come together and present a bold front that is unapologetically conservative, it in turn inspires other people.”
‘All about engagement’
Florida’s Republican influencers and media personalities produce a high volume of social media posts, TV shows, podcasts and newsletters, some of which generate revenue. They maximize engagement by cross-posting screenshots of tweets to Instagram, making memes out of Fox News videos and promoting their brands by appearing on Newsmax. Then there’s the merchandise machine consisting of T-shirts, koozies, gag gifts and books.
The content is often designed to prod or enrage.
Leatherwood recently posted a meme of four photos of drag queens reading books to children with the caption: “Here are 4 reasons gay conservatives support the anti-grooming bill,” referencing Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, or what detractors call the “don’t say gay” bill.
O’Handley has a permanent Instagram story of messages from people saying the COVID-19 vaccines gave them health problems. He promoted a conspiracy theory during a video interview that President Joe Biden instigated the Russian invasion of Ukraine “to cover up his family’s corruption.”
On a recent podcast, St. Petersburg resident Fletcher and his co-host joked about how liberal billionaires could use artificial intelligence to switch votes in Wisconsin, and mocked a trans person who complained online about being misgendered.
“It’s all about engagement, right?” said Myiah Hutchens, a University of Florida professor who researches partisan media.
She said posts that incite anger, both from liberals who are offended by the content or from Republicans outraged at the wrongs the influencers say they’re exposing, often have increased reach. That means more likes, comments and shares of posts, which is often how influencers grow their brands and make money, Hutchens said.
“We like to pretend we’re very rational people and we approach politics in this rational way … (but) we know anger provokes engagement more than anything else.”
She warned that the rise of partisan media and entertainment comes at the cost of increased national polarization. Social media users who see inflammatory content should always try to verify it with other sources, Hutchens said.
Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting and a progressive activist with more than 50,000 Twitter followers, said even when political content looks like it’s reaching a huge audience organically, it’s often the result of coordination in private direct messages where influencers will ask others for shares of their posts or compare notes on messaging.
“If it sounds like they’re all reading from the same script, they are,” Wolf said. He said he and other liberal social media users have used similar tactics.
There are certainly viral Democratic accounts and podcasts, some of which also share misinformation. But there isn’t an equivalent community of influencers wielding political clout on the left who are migrating to Florida.
Leatherwood confirmed that he occasionally collaborates with others on messaging, and said like-minded social media accounts will frequently boost others’ posts, though anyone who isn’t a personal friend must pay a fee.
“Everyone might say, ‘We’re going to hit this person,’ and everybody will go after them … (but) usually it happens organically because we’re all passionate about the same things,” he said.
The Snowflake News account, run by Palm Harbor resident Hennessey, was named a top “repeat spreader” of misinformation related to the 2020 election in a report authored by Stanford and University of Washington academics in partnership with a social media analysis company and a disinformation research group.
He said that was a badge of honor.
“Nice!” Hennessey said when a Tampa Bay Times reporter told him about the report. “If they’re putting their false information about me out there … then I’m stepping on somebody’s toes who’s doing something they shouldn’t be.”
In addition to Tampa Bay’s cadre of influencers, some of the biggest names in conservative media have settled across Florida: Fox News host Tucker Carlson bought a $2.9 million house near Fort Myers in 2020. He tapes episodes of his new daytime show from a log-cabin-themed studio he’s called his “Florida lair.” Podcasting giant Ben Shapiro moved to Boca Raton the same year. He recently taped an episode with media personality Karol Markowicz, who also said she’s relocated to South Florida.
The Miami area is the new home of Fox News’ Lisa Boothe, conservative talk show host Dave Rubin and conservative Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer, according to social media posts and public records.
Wolf said he’s most concerned about how the rhetoric used on social media travels from Instagram to the mouths of Fox News commentators to the pens of lawmakers — all of whom could now be in closer geographic proximity.
“It’s sort of a chicken and an egg with many of the political conversations we’re having,” Wolf said. “The misinformation and the anti-LGBTQ animus behind that content … is informing policy.”
From social media into the real world
The clout of Florida’s conservative influencers extends beyond online followers and into tangible access to Republican politicians.
Many of the media personalities attend events at Mar-a-Lago, where they mingle with big names on the right and pose for pictures with Trump.
O’Handley gave a speech on the main stage of the Conservative Political Action Conference this year.
According to social media posts and news reports from the time, both O’Handley and Fletcher attended private meetings last year with Trump at a New Jersey golf resort where the former president was planning ways to “move forward in a real way,” former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said during a Newsmax interview. Also present at one of the meetings was former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is now a Washington lobbyist with deep Trump ties.
DeSantis, who has mostly declined to sit down for interviews with Florida’s major newspapers and other traditional media outlets, recently appeared on both Shapiro and Boothe’s podcasts, and recorded an hourlong conversation in Carlson’s wood-paneled room. A group of conservative media personalities — including new Florida residents Hammer, Rubin, Markowicz, Johnson and others — were invited to dinner at the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee in January. They posed for pictures with DeSantis and his spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, who herself often tweets dozens of times per day, including retweets of those same influencers.
At an official DeSantis news conference in Tampa late last year, the governor introduced a woman named Kate in “the nursing profession,” who thanked him for signing a bill restricting employers’ ability to mandate vaccines. DeSantis didn’t mention that she is the wife of Johnson, the Newsmax host.
This new digital age of GOP politics may only be in its early stages.
Turning Point USA, a Republican group for students, has an influencer program that “identifies current and potential thought leaders and personalities” who will “saturate social and traditional media markets with the message of freedom and limited government,” according to the group’s website.
Last year, it hosted its annual Student Action Summit in Tampa, and is scheduled to do so again this summer. In 2021, it featured appearances from a long list of politicians including DeSantis. This year, Trump is slated to speak.
The group’s founder, Charlie Kirk, bought an oceanfront condo in Longboat Key in 2019, property records show.
Some influencers may be looking to make the leap from Instagram to the ballot.
Godwin, the St. Petersburg man behind the @the_typical_liberal account, has in his profile bio: “RUNNING FOR CONGRESS EVENTUALLY.”
O’Handley was asked when he was going to run for office during a recent video interview.
“Right now we’re blessed in Florida to have some of the best leaders,” he said. “If there ever is a need, we’ll see. But right now I’m fighting to support them from social media and (the) media sidelines.”
(Tampa Bay Times data editor Langston Taylor contributed to this report.)
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