For the first time in a long time, Florida Democrats have something to smile about.
Democrat and former television news anchor Donna Deegan on Tuesday bested her Republican opponent, JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis, by four points to become Jacksonville’s next mayor, 52%-48%. Deegan, who will be the city's first woman mayor, replaces Republican Mayor Lenny Curry, who is term limited.
She'll be the first Democrat in the mayor's office since Alvin Brown in 2015.
"Love won tonight, and we made history," she said in a statement. "We have a new day in Jacksonville because people chose unity over division—creating a broad coalition of people across the political spectrum that want a unified city. Together, we will bring change for good to Jacksonville by making good on the decades-long broken promises on infrastructure, building an economy that works for everyone and improving access to healthcare. We will break down the wall between City Hall and bring all the people in to create a city that works for everyone."
Down ballot, Democrat Joyce Morgan won the Duval County property appraiser race against former Republican state Rep. Jason Fischer, and three out of five Democrats in City Council races against Republicans came out on top.
The victories come after the party in Duval and across the state had been shellacked in recent elections. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis carried the county by 12 points last year on his way to winning a second term by a 19-point margin statewide against Democrat Charlie Crist.
Just six months later, Deegan overcame the odds despite Republican turnout outperforming Democrats by about 7,000 voters – suggesting no-party voters cemented her win. But the GOP's turnout advantage was able to pay off for them at other races on the ballot: Republican Chris Miller won the only at-large council race on the ballot by a margin similar to his party’s voter advantage.
Matthew Isbell, a Democrat and election data consultant, said the losses by Davis and Fischer signal that their messaging was ineffective at reaching independent voters and galvanizing their party’s support. "Turnout didn’t save them,” he said.
Moderately better turnout from Democrats could have tilted the at-large seat in their favor, meaning voter turnout must be a goal for Duval Democrats if they hope to continue to make gains electorally, he added.
Davis had DeSantis endorsement going into Tuesday's election
Polling did have Deegan ahead in the race. Aside from being known from TV, she's also a breast cancer survivor who founded The DONNA Foundation, which provides financial support to those living with breast cancer and runs a yearly marathon to fund breast cancer research.
But Davis had the city’s business community, law enforcement agencies, outgoing Mayor Curry – a former Republican Party of Florida chair – and a DeSantis endorsement at his back.
Florida Times-Union metro columnist Nate Monroe told City & State that Deegan’s victory signals a significant defeat for local Republicans and Jacksonville business leaders. “It upsets decades of an established political order,” he said.
Deegan came into the race with the most name ID from her time on television, but she also received something few Duval Dems have gotten in recent years: loud and public support from the state party.
Newly elected state party chair Nikki Fried made public appearances with Deegan, as well as other personal appearances to support Duval Democrats, and backed Deegan on social media against criticism from Curry.
Fried told City & State Tuesday night that it was a huge win for Jacksonville and the Democratic Party and a signal of the power that more active organizing can bring for them across the state. “When we work together and do the work on the ground it produces wins,” she said.
To be sure, however, Deegan and the other Democrats’ victories won’t turn Jacksonville into a Democratic stronghold off of Tuesday’s results alone:
— Republicans still hold a majority on City Council.
— Jacksonville Sheriff TK Waters is a Republican who endorsed Davis.
— The Duval GOP is still better funded than the Duval Dems, meaning every election cycle will be a battle.
Democrats cheer a win in Duval
Despite that, Democrats from Jacksonville and across the state celebrated as the results rolled in.
U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost of Central Florida congratulated Deegan on Twitter. Orlando-area state Rep. Anna Eskamani also took to Twitter, saying the results could signal a shift in Florida voters.
“With the big win in Jacksonville I am hopeful that Florida voters are beginning to realize that the GOP has gone too far. FL Republican leaders aren’t focused on solving real problems, just creating fake ones,” she wrote.
State Rep. Angie Nixon, a Jacksonville Democrat, told City & State Deegan’s victory means that voters in ‘DeSantis’ Florida’ are ready for politicians that care about the communities they serve and not other interests.
“A Deegan win means Floridians are tired of the divisive politics that are causing many of our community members to leave our state,” she said. “A Deegan win means promises will be kept for communities that are often marginalized. I am excited for the future of my city and even more excited for the future of this state.”