Is Donna Deegan the next great hope of Florida Democrats?

It remains to be seen whether her name ID and positions will put her over the top in the Jacksonville mayor's race.

NickLulli, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

On May 16, Duval Democrats’ trajectory could be drastically altered by the performance of their mayoral candidate.

Former television anchor Donna Deegan still faces the same issues that have plagued her party locally and statewide, relegating her to underdog status by pundits despite her lead in the polls. Despite this, she is the best hope Duval Democrats have had in almost a decade in one of their own becoming Jacksonville’s mayor and building local momentum.

"I would hope to be remembered as the mayor who finally brought Jacksonville to its full potential downtown as we open up our riverfront and bring the people of all walks into our vibrant, resilient, connected neighborhoods and parks," Deegan said in Ballotpedia's 2023 Candidate Connection survey. "And (as) the mayor who made sure that in a city with the best healthcare in the country, we also have the best health outcomes. Most of all, I would hope to be remembered for my leadership and ability to bring people together to work toward common goals for the people of Jacksonville."

Aside from one four-year term for Alvin Brown in 2011-2015, Republicans have held the mayor’s office since 1993. The Democrats failed to even field a candidate to challenge current Mayor Lenny Curry, a former Republican Party of Florida chair, in 2019. The GOP also maintains a commanding lead in the makeup of the city council.

But trends hint that the potential pool of Democratic Party voters has grown in the city. Joe Biden bested Donald Trump in Duval County in 2020 by four points. And Democratic candidate Bill Nelson beat Rick Scott in the county by almost two points in 2018’s U.S. Senate race. Those margins have yet to reflect in municipal elections, which happen in the spring after every midterm election. 

Nate Monroe, a columnist for the Florida Times-Union, told City & State the timing of the elections provide inherent advantages that Republicans are able to tap into. He said off-year elections attract higher-frequency voters, which Duval Republicans have a built-in advantage in with white evangelical voters. 

Duval Democrats, on the other hand, must energize voters from several different blocs, from the city’s Black population, to white liberal voters downtown, out to the population around the beaches. That requirement complicates the messaging and makes outreach more difficult without big races atop a ticket.

The Duval Democratic Party has not made it any easier. Being out of power, they have faced organizational, resource and recruitment challenges. They aren’t alone: The Florida Democratic Party faced similar challenges. The FDP also has had to play whack-a-mole across different areas with different constituents across the state, which has caused them to lose ground in several of their key strongholds.

But Deegan has something almost no other Democratic candidate does: name recognition. Her 24 years on First Coast Connect helps make up for any organizational or financial distance between her and Republican Daniel Davis, Monroe said. “She’s not a solution to the organizational and resource problems. That is something that comes with success. But she walked into this race with mayoral-level name ID. That's a tremendous advantage,” he said.

Deegan also is known from her DONNA Foundation, which provides financial support to those living with breast cancer and runs a yearly marathon to fund breast cancer research, its website says.

She also has received public backing from the state party, something few local Democratic candidates have received. FDP chair Nikki Fried made public appearances with Deegan, personal appearances to support Duval Democrats, backed Deegan on social media and came to bat for her against criticism from Curry. 

In a statement to City & State, Fried said Davis getting elected would mean four more years of failed Curry policies. “Jacksonville deserves better, and Donna Deegan is the only candidate in this race equipped to bring the change Jacksonville needs. Donna has a real shot at winning this election in May, and clearly, Mayor Curry knows it too,” Fried said.

While she may have a shot, all signs still point to it being Davis’ race to lose. As CEO of JAX Chamber of Commerce, he amassed endorsements from Gov. Ron DeSantis (who won Duval County by nine points in 2022), Jacksonville Sheriff TK Waters and the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police. The collection of business, Republican stars and law enforcement support is a strong front against Deegan. If she wins, she’ll be dealing with a majority in the City Council from the opposing party and a sheriff who campaigned for her opponent, for example. 

With those caveats, Monroe believes a win for her could give a shot in the arm to Duval Dems that could help them get back to the basics to turn their party around. “You cannot win if you do not play,” he said.

Contact Tristan Wood at twood@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on Twitter: @TristanDWood

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