Ousted Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones wins House primary, will face Rep. Matt Gaetz – USA TODAY

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An ousted Florida data scientist who said she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 numbers and emerged as a critic of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over his handling of the pandemic won her U.S. House primary race and will challenge Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of former President Donald Trump’s staunchest supporters, for a seat in Congress. 
Rebekah Jones won Tuesday’s Democratic primary in northwestern Florida’s first congressional district, setting up a chance to unseat the incumbent Gaetz, who has represented the district since 2017. 
Jones was vaulted into the public eye during the early stages of the pandemic after she was fired from her position at the Florida Department of Public Health.
The Democratic nominee said she was fired for speaking out about what she said was the state’s manipulation of COVID-19 data, while state officials said she was fired for insubordination. 
Tuesday marked her first successful foray into electoral politics. 
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Jones worked as a data scientist who helped build the state’s COVID-19 dashboard as it navigated the early months of the pandemic in 2020. She was fired from her position in May of that year over what she said was her refusal to manipulate COVID-19 data to support the governor’s plans to reopen the state.
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Her firing and feud with DeSantis hit a crescendo in December 2020, when state law enforcement officials raided her Tallahassee, Florida, home to execute a search warrant. They seized her computer hardware.
Jones captured the search on video and posted it to social media, where it went viral. The raid caused an uproar among those who viewed her as a persecuted dissident of the DeSantis administration. 
A month later, she was charged with a felony accusing her of illegally accessing state computer systems to send a mass text message using the state emergency alert system to more than 1,700 people calling on state employees to speak out on COVID-19. The charges are still pending.
Jones has denied any wrongdoing.
A state investigation report released earlier this year found no evidence that officials tried to manipulate coronavirus data as alleged by Jones. She and her legal team refuted the investigation’s findings, in documents obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat, part of the USA TODAY network.
Jones also faces a pending misdemeanor charge of cyberstalking from a lesser reported incident prior to her work on COVID-19 that has been used by many of Jones’ critics to attack her credibility.
Her congressional bid looked like it could have been over just a few weeks ago. A judge disqualified her from running because she did not meet party registration requirements.
Her Democratic opponent, Peggy Schiller, had filed a suit alleging Jones had been a registered “unaffiliated” for a crucial two-month period while Jones lived in Maryland.
Jones appealed and was let back into the race. She won more than 62% of the vote. 
Jones had intended to run as an unaffiliated candidate, but a new Florida law provision required her to run under her registered party. 
“I had to run as a Democrat, but I’m not running on a party platform,” Jones told the Pensacola News-Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, in February. “I’m not running on Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden. I’ve taken a lot of heat, actually, from my own party for being critical of Joe Biden, especially on COVID response and the Afghanistan debacle.”
“I’m the only one who can win this against a Republican, Gaetz or otherwise, and I’m certainly the only one who’s taken on the GOP in the state and beat them,” Jones said at the time.
Unseating Gaetz in a traditionally red district expects to be a steep task. The Republican congressman swiftly secured a primary victory Tuesday. But he faces legal troubles and scandals of his own. Gaetz has been under federal investigation over allegations he slept with a minor since last year. 
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Contributing: Staff, Pensacola News-Journal; Jim Little, Pensacola News-Journal; Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon, FLORIDA TODAY; Sergio Bustos and John Kennedy, Tallahassee Democrat; Jigsha Desai, Tallahassee Democrat

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