Florida Democrats scored a huge pickup on Tuesday when former TV anchor Donna Deegan won the officially nonpartisan race for mayor of Jacksonville by defeating her Republican foe, Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce head Daniel Davis. Deegan's win in the race to succeed termed-out GOP Mayor Lenny Curry will make her the first woman to lead the state’s most populous city and just the second Democrat to hold this office since the early 1990s.
Deegan overcame a serious financial advantage enjoyed by Davis, who aired ads attacking her for attending Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, to give her party a much-needed victory months after its statewide drubbing. She also ends Jacksonville’s status as the largest city in America with a Republican mayor, a title that now goes to Fort Worth, Texas, where incumbent Mattie Price easily won a second term earlier this month.
Jacksonville, which was consolidated with the rest of Duval County in 1968, was for decades a conservative stronghold in both state and local politics. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory began a Republican winning streak that would continue well into the 21st century, while Mayor Ed Austin’s 1993 party switch gave the GOP control of city hall for the first time in a century.
Democrats finally took back the mayor’s office in 2011 when Alvin Brown narrowly beat a hardline GOP foe who had alienated business interests, a win that also made him the city’s first Black leader. His tenure, though, didn't usher in a new progressive era in Jacksonville as the mayor distanced himself from state and national Democrats and further alienated the party base by refusing to back a human rights ordinance aimed at protecting the city’s large LGBTQ community. Curry, a former state GOP chair, unseated Brown 51-49 in 2015, and Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate to oppose him four years later.
Despite recent history, though, Democrats still had reasons for optimism about Duval County’s long-term direction. Both Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum took the city in 2018 despite narrowly losing statewide, while Joe Biden's subsequent 51-47 victory made him the party’s first presidential nominee to carry Duval County since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Things were much bleaker in 2022 as both Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis carried Duval by wide margins, though local Democrats at least had the comfort of knowing that Jacksonville was still voting to the left of the state as a whole.
Deegan’s win on Tuesday at last gave her party some indisputably good news, but Democrats still have much work to do in the future in order to turn Duval County into a blue bastion. Republican T.K. Waters secured reelection this year without opposition as sheriff, which also puts him in charge of the city’s police, while the GOP continues to maintain a considerable advantage on the 19-person City Council. Still, Democrats are hoping that Deegan’s triumph will mark a new beginning in north Florida.
How do you make a campaign ad that voters actually want to watch? We're discussing that critical question on this week's episode of "The Downballot" with leading Democratic ad-maker Mark Putnam, who's been responsible for some of the most memorable spots in recent years. Putnam details his creative process, which always starts with spending time with candidates to truly learn their story—and scouting locations in-depth. He then walks us through the production of the famous Jason Kander-assembles-a-gun-blindfolded ad that went viral and explains why, believe it or not, you always want footnotes in your attack ads.