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How Democrats pulled off a big upset in Florida

Former news anchor Donna Deegan flipped the city of Jacksonville, a rare win for Democrats in the state.

Skyline view of Jacksonville, Florida, with John Alsop Bridge. 
Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This week, Democrats got a rare bit of good news in Florida: For the first time in years, they flipped the mayoral seat in Jacksonville, the most populous Republican-led city in the country. The win, driven by former news anchor Donna Deegan, was widely seen as a major upset for the GOP, which increased its dominance in the state during the 2022 midterm elections.

Deegan’s win is a significant victory for Democrats, but may not be a sign of a sea change in Florida politics. She won fairly narrowly, bringing in 52 percent of the vote to Republican Chamber of Commerce leader Daniel Davis’s 48 percent. And though Jacksonville is part of Duval County, Florida, which is historically Republican, the area is considered more of a swing district than other parts of the state. Jacksonville has elected mayors of both parties in the last two decades, while Duval County’s supported both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in recent years. In 2016, former President Donald Trump won the area, and in 2020, President Joe Biden did.

Deegan was also uniquely bolstered by the strength of her candidacy and an inclusive message about change that brought in Democrats, independents, and a decent number of crossover Republicans. A nightly regional news anchor for 25 years who went on to have a public fight with breast cancer, Deegan had deep ties to the Jacksonville area and strong voter recognition. She was also able to capitalize on a voter base disappointed with current Republican leadership as crime in the city has stayed high, and as a recent bid to privatize Jacksonville’s public utility has been mired in scandal.

“She had two things going for her,” Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale told Vox. “One is she is a phenomenal candidate. If you grew up in Jacksonville, you grew up with Donna Deegan. I’ve known who Donna Deegan was since I was 11 years old. [Plus,] the outgoing administration also had some issues and you saw a lot of dissatisfaction with the direction of the city and a real desire for change.”

Deegan ran a broadly positive campaign, with a focus on bringing people of different parties together and making Jacksonville government more inclusive and representative of the city’s population. Deegan also spoke about changing the culture of city government and making it more transparent. Some of the top issues she has said she would focus on as mayor include addressing aging infrastructure, improving the city’s health outcomes, and boosting support for small businesses. Even as Deegan sought to be more inclusive in her messaging, Davis tacked sharper to the right in his campaign, a move that may have hurt him.

“As much as I wanted to win this race for the people of Jacksonville, I wanted love to win,” Deegan said in her victory speech on Tuesday. “I told you it felt like where we were, that we were getting a lot of crossovers, that we were getting a lot of folks who just wanted desperately that change in Jacksonville.”

The factors behind Deegan’s win

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for Democrats hoping to make gains in Florida in 2024 is the importance of running a candidate with strong connections to the community.

In addition to being a recognizable news anchor for decades, Deegan was well known in Jacksonville for having started a foundation to help underserved women fighting breast cancer and holding popular events and runs in the city. Deegan pursued this work after getting diagnosed with breast cancer three times herself.

“People know me. We’ve lived a shared life in Jacksonville,” Deegan said in an MSNBC interview.

The ties she’s established over time were invaluable, said Schale. “She’s lived this very public life that’s allowed her to build a very resilient and, in some ways, nonpartisan brand,” he told Vox. “There’s residual trust in who she is as a human.”

The name recognition meant Deegan didn’t have to spend time or money introducing herself to voters. Deegan didn’t just rely on that, however, University of Northern Florida political scientist Georgette Dumont told Vox. Deegan expanded on existing awareness by mounting a strong ground game, with a robust door-knocking campaign and town halls, and she participated in a public debate, which Davis opted to skip.

In her messaging, Deegan also focused on hyperlocal issues, positioning herself as a new voice in the mayor’s office that could push back on concerns voters may have had with how Republicans were running the city — including when it comes to crime and infrastructure. The city saw a spike in homicides in 2022 and has gotten scrutiny for being Florida’s purported murder capital. Davis, the Republican candidate, had responded by calling for more police on the street, something Deegan backed as well, though she also called for additional investments in social programs that addressed poverty and food insecurity.

Voters who are upset about the conservative agenda that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed through the state legislature also saw Deegan as an opposition candidate. DeSantis endorsed Davis, though he did not invest significant energy boosting his campaign.

Deegan also focused her messaging on inclusive leadership that disregarded partisanship, emphasizing her willingness to boost a city government that takes in voices of all parties. She pledged to include more diversity on important boards to better reflect Jacksonville’s demographics. According to the US Census Bureau, the city is roughly 55 percent white, 31 percent Black, 11 percent Latino, and 5 percent Asian American. That type of framing ultimately could prove appealing to voters in similarly swingy areas who may be more open to less partisan rhetoric.

“This is a heavily Republican district that’s turning more blue over the years as people move in,” said Dumont. Jacksonville has become increasingly diverse, younger, and more metropolitan in recent years, added Schale. He also noted that the Obama campaign, which he worked on, invested heavily in turning out more Black voters in the region, an effort candidates can continue to build on.

With Democrats preparing to make investments in Florida ahead of the 2024 elections, Deegan’s win could be instructive. As she showed, with the right candidate, messaging, and ground game, Democrats can keep on making gains in Florida.

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