Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz crushed challenger Mark Lombardo in the Republican Primary for Florida’s 1st Congressional District, racking up 69% of the vote.
The outcome was expected and, with the nomination in hand, Gaetz is a near-lock for another term in Congress.
Still, he must face a Democrat in the November General Election. The opponent will be Rebekah Jones, who cruised to victory with about 62% of the vote in a head-to-head race against Peggy Schiller.
Lombardo did put up more fight than past CD 1 hopefuls, spending massive amounts of his own money, mostly on ads smearing Gaetz.
The former U.S. Marine and early executive at FedEx centered in on allegations that Gaetz was involved in the sex trafficking of a minor. In a series of hard-hitting ads, he dogged Gaetz for hiring “pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s attorney to defend himself against sex trafficking” and said the three-term incumbent can “no longer get the job done” in Washington.
The attacks stem from an ongoing investigation into Gaetz’s extracurricular activities. The inquiry’s genesis is the Congressman’s connection to former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who has pleaded guilty to multiple federal charges, the most notable being sex trafficking of a minor.
Gaetz maintains he has not committed any crimes, and so far, no charges have been brought against him in the year-and-a-half since the allegations first went public.
Despite the potential criminal charges and the constant ads in the district attempting to keep that front of mind, big-name conservative allies rallied around Gaetz to help him secure victory.
Gaetz recently blasted Lombardo for having the “gall” to attack U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio. Jordan is a far-right Congressman who has built a national profile for his unquestioning loyalty to Trump, his frenetic questioning of those who are not, and the threat he poses to the accepted standards of men’s dress wear.
He is one of the few true allies Gaetz has left in the Capitol and, like his Sunshine State colleague, he also had a proximal relationship to a man entrusted with authority who was credibly accused of routine sexual malfeasance against people half his age or younger.
Jordan and other members of the right-wing populist Freedom Caucus parachuted into the district in the closing days of the Primary. The events mostly featured them and Gaetz riffing on their desire to punish FBI agents for executing a search warrant and reward servicemembers who developed trypanophobia based on widespread misinformation.
One Crestview gun store was graced by Gaetz and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a gun-loving Congresswoman who owns a restaurant where chicken nachos are brought to your table by a waitress packing heat.
Even more so than Boebert, Gaetz is known for his vociferous support of gun rights. His rise to conservative stardom was helped along by his fiery defense of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law when the Legislature floated revisions. The “not one damn comma” monologue resonated with conservatives in the same manner that a similarly controversial former Congressman’s “die quickly” monologue did with liberals a few years prior.
But the kill shot on Lombardo was not delivered by any of these celebrity Congressmen or Congresswomen. It was a late endorsement from the big man himself that shattered Lombardo’s chances.
For most of the past 18 months, Trump has been silent on Gaetz. News reports from the early days of the Congressman’s current dilemma claimed Gaetz had sought a blanket pardon from the President. Many critics assumed Trump’s unwillingness to grant the pardon gave credence to the allegations against Gaetz.
After all, Trump had never been shy about using his clemency powers in novel or controversial ways. He previously pardoned a Sheriff convicted of contempt of court and a rapper known for his love of codeine-laced fruit soda and his fondness for the illegal possession of firearms.
The former President also has a penchant for standing by candidates steeped in negative PR. Notably, he refused to back away from Roy Moore, the 2017 Republican nominee for Alabama U.S. Senate who faced sexual assault and harassment allegations from multiple women and who had been banned from an Alabama shopping mall in his mid-30s for romantically pursuing its teenage customers.
In the end, the controversy surrounding Gaetz had little if any impact on his electoral performance. It’s possible that in the current political climate, he may have even been helped by it, as Republican voters on the Trump train tend not to view smoke as a sign of fire, but as a sign of fear in the hearts of a supposed deep state run by liberals.
Gaetz knew as much throughout this campaign, correctly predicting that “voters in Northwest Florida know liberal propaganda when they see it” — a reference to ads run by The Lincoln Project, which highlighted sexist statements the Congressman made regarding abortion rights advocates.
As Lombardo learned tonight, and many other Republican challengers learned over the past six years, controversy is fuel for the Gaetz political machine and there is little outside of an act of god or the DOJ that can shut it down.
Meanwhile, Jones may be celebrating her victory tonight but is certain to learn the same lesson as Lombardo in the General Election. Still, her victory was a hard-fought one.
Jones, who is known as either an unjustly fired and wrongly persecuted data scientist or a partisan rabble-rouser depending on one’s party affiliation, fled Florida last year after state law enforcement officers searched her house and confiscated a computer she was alleged to have used to illegally access the Florida Department of Health’s text alert system.
She first rose to fame when she claimed the state was manipulating COVID-19 data to downplay the severity of the pandemic. She was the yin to Christina Pushaw’s yang, with the latter’s blistering pushback against Jones’ allegations causing the Governor to take notice of and later hire Pushaw as his press secretary.
Jones, meanwhile, leveraged her own newfound notoriety to launch this congressional bid against Gaetz. Her initial plan was to seek office as an independent candidate, but she later shifted gears to run as a Democrat.
While a major party nomination would theoretically make Jones a more viable candidate in a district that did not go for Trump by 40 points, on paper the decision gave Schiller the ammo necessary to file a lawsuit seeking to remove Jones from the ballot.
Its basis was in the state laws that govern qualification requirements for candidates — the common interpretation of the rules is that one must have been registered with the party they wish to represent for at least one year before qualifying for the ballot.
Jones was a few months short of the mark and Schiller’s lawsuit was temporarily successful. However, the decision to boot Jones from the ballot was quickly stayed by the courts and later reversed entirely upon appeal.
Though Jones will indeed appear on the November ballot, the CD 1 Primary Election was little more than the mid-season finale for a TV show that would have been painfully dull even as a 75-minute movie. Everyone knew that Gaetz would remain in Washington by the end of the pilot episode, they’re just waiting for the writer’s room to catch up.