Opinion: Steve Schale on why Donna Deegan won the Jacksonville mayor's race

'People had decided from the beginning they were comfortable with her as a political candidate because they were comfortable with her as a public citizen,' Schale writes.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Tuesday night was a big win for Donna Deegan in Jacksonville. As is often the case when something happens in politics that conventional wisdom didn’t see happening, everyone tries to find the hidden meaning. But sometimes the secret is – to quote my GOP brother Kevin Sweeny – “well, maybe there is no secret at all.”

After a dozen or so press calls on Wednesday, I thought it might be useful to write down some thoughts. 

In the news –

So let’s get to the foundational reasons behind her win, at least as I see it, as an aging hack and Jaguars fan with a more than average rooting interest in Jacksonville:

1.  Duval County is not what you think it is, and by all standards is more Democratic than the state.

Some people are surprised to learn the first Thanksgiving in America was celebrated in Jacksonville, decades before Plymouth Rock (with a meal of alligator, true Florida Man style). 

Others were shocked to learn last year that Trevor Lawrence is good – really good. And so there are people who seem oddly surprised that a Democrat won in Duval County.

Yes, Republicans have controlled the Mayor’s office for all but four years going back to when I was a kid. Yes, Ron DeSantis put a beating on Charlie Crist there in 2022. 

But neither fact tells any kind of a story. The last two competitive mayoral races in 2011 and 2015 had margins of D +1 (Brown 2011) and R +3 (Curry 2015). 

Up the ballot, the average margin of the last four presidential elections is R +0.25, with Biden winning by four in 2020. The last 3 before 2022 (2010, 2014, and 2008) is R +4, with Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum winning by four in 2018. 

And DeSantis’ margin of 11, while quite strong, was significantly less than his statewide margin. 

The point of this is Duval itself is competitive, and if you consider the 2022 margin to be an outlier, there is no reason to think a strong Democratic candidate can’t win. It was a huge win, indeed a historic win, but it is not a shocking win. 

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In this file photo, an attendee at the Jacksonville Women's Leadership Symposium at EverBank Center in Jacksonville, asks keynote speaker Donna Deegan how she overcame personal challenges, Nov. 13, 2013. (Photo by Lauren Jorgensen)

2.  Donna Deegan was a tremendous candidate.

I grew up in the region, went to high school in Jacksonville. Like everyone who calls Jacksonville home, for a huge chunk of my life, Donna Deegan has been a fixture on television. 

I met Deegan’s now-husband when I was in the fifth grade, met her for the first time as a teenager, and watched them both on TV for years. In an era when local broadcast news was a key spoke of civic life, Deegan operated at the hub, a trusted voice. 

As a candidate, you couldn’t have asked for a better bio. She grew up in Jacksonville, went to high school there, spent 25 years on television, during which time she had a very public battle with cancer. Then she left television to run a foundation that raises money to fight cancer and help people with cancer. Her brand isn’t Republican or Democratic – her brand is Donna. 

And it frankly was underappreciated by most. Most observers questioned whether she could win enough crossover support. The truth is, I don’t believe there was a single public poll that ever had her losing this race, starting when she first got in. 

People had decided from the beginning they were comfortable with her as a political candidate because they were comfortable with her as a public citizen. Her brand allowed her to withstand a massive spending disadvantage and a months-long barrage of negative ads. 

I did expect the Davis folks to run ads that we often call “permission structure” ads. They say to the voter in a roundabout way, “hey, it is OK to like this person and still vote against them.” But the Davis camp chose a far more coarse route, which likely firmed up her own support. The contrast in ads seemed to make a difference. 

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3.  There was a change in atmosphere in Jacksonville.

I am proud to call the current mayor, Lenny Curry, a friend. While we have political differences, I am grateful we've never let that get between us (the Jaguars Mafia bonds are strong). But as is often the case after two terms, several polls I saw showed a desire for change in the city. 

The Republican nominee came out of the Jacksonville political establishment. Deegan was an outsider and community leader. The contrast wasn’t difficult to make.

4.  Persuasion/Median Voter Theory/etc. – It all still matters. 

There is this notion, particularly among Twitter activists in my party, that no voter is moveable – that all Republicans will only vote Republican, and that it is fruitless to try to persuade them.

Donna Deegan is just the next in the line of people to crush that theory, and remind everyone that the median voter theory is very much alive and well.

If you had taken all labels off these two candidates, just looked at what they said on paper, you would have picked Deegan ten out of ten times as the candidate whose messaging was closest to the center. 

While Davis ran hard to the right, she ran in a place that made it easy for unaffiliated voters to support her, and she gave space for Republicans to cross over. And because of this, she was able to overcome a decent GOP advantage in terms of turnout. 

5.  Please stop trying to draw national conclusions on this race.

I know, I am a Democrat, so some of y’all think I should be screaming, “SEE DUVAL IS ‘BLUEVAL.’ DEMOCRATS ARE GOING TO CRUSH EVERYONE!” Alas, that is simply ridiculous. 

Every campaign is unique. They are their own moments, driven by the circumstances and the people in them. Deegan was uniquely the right candidate for the right moment, running the right kind of race in a community that has been getting riper for Democrats. That is the only conclusion anyone needs to make. 

While winning is important for my side – important for morale, important for momentum – Deegan doesn't need national comparisons to make her win historic. It stands on its own. 

6.  Community leaders should run for office.

We can all disagree on ideology and partisanship, but Jacksonville was a good race between two people who have spent a lot of time working in their community. My first boss, Doug Wiles from St. Augustine, was once described as someone who had run for office his whole life, but just never knew it. 

Too many community leaders shy away from running, and given the nature of politics, it is understandable. I hope Deegan’s win demonstrates to people like her in both parties that there is a path, and that public service is a noble calling.

7.  "Trevor Lawrence is him"

You didn’t really think you’d get through an op-ed from me about Jacksonville without a Jaguars section, did you?

Trevor finished the season last year showing the promise that he’s had from Day 1 – leading the team to three of its biggest comebacks in history, including the historic 27-point comeback in the Wild Card round. 

In fact, my phone got more texts that night from friends than I’ve ever gotten in a single political campaign. I think we win 11-12 games this year, and America, you haven’t seen anything more insufferable than Jaguars fans will be when he gets us a ring.

In the end, Deegan’s win was hers, and hers alone – a great candidate who ran a smart race, at the right time. After all, politics is all about timing and opportunity. 

Just like it is for the Jaguars. This is the right time, with the right set of opportunities. 

I close with the prayer for all who love Jacksonville, Republicans and Democrats alike: 

May Deegan’s first term not only be truly uniting, may it also be the moment that Trevor gets us that long-awaited first ring. And that moment when all of America will stand on their porches and yell in unison: DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUVAL. 

A version of this op-ed was first published on Steve Schale’s personal blog, www.steveschale.com. Schale, now a lobbyist with The Advocacy Group at Cardenas Partners, has been an advisor to President Barack Obama and Florida candidate for governor Gwen Graham. Views expressed are those of the author and not of the City & State Florida editorial staff.

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