In Florida Upset, Democrat Wins Jacksonville Mayor’s Race
MIAMI — Donna Deegan, a Democrat, was elected mayor of Jacksonville on Tuesday, shaking up the politics of Florida’s largest city, where Republican mayors have been in power for all but four of the last 30 years.
Ms. Deegan, a former television news anchor, defeated Daniel Davis, a Republican endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had been seen as the likely favorite in the traditionally Republican stronghold. In recent years, Jacksonville had been the most populous city in the country with a Republican mayor, Lenny Curry, who is term-limited; that distinction now goes to Fort Worth, Texas.
Ms. Deegan’s victory is a rare bright spot for Florida Democrats, whose losses have mounted in recent elections to the point that the party has little sway in the State Capitol and a thin candidate bench.
But while Florida has become decidedly more Republican — and while many have viewed Mr. DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential contender, as all-powerful in state politics — Jacksonville has emerged as a swingy corner of the state. A majority of voters in Duval County, which shares a consolidated government with the city of Jacksonville, voted for the Democratic nominee for governor in 2018, for the Republican mayor in 2019, for President Biden in 2020, for Mr. DeSantis last year, and now for Ms. Deegan, who will be the city’s first female mayor.
“We made history tonight,” Ms. Deegan told cheering supporters Tuesday night after Mr. Davis conceded.
Ms. Deegan campaigned as a change candidate, leaning into the relationships she had made in the community as she overcame breast cancer three times while working on television and as she later created the Donna Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps people diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I made a decision when we got into this race that, no matter what happened, no matter what the landscape was like, we were going to lead with love over fear,” Ms. Deegan said Tuesday night. “We would not go with division. We would go with unity.”
Mr. Davis, the chief executive of the local chamber of commerce, out-raised Ms. Deegan by a margin of four to one and seemed like the sort of business-friendly Republican that has long dominated elections in Jacksonville, a Navy and shipping town. Mr. Curry, the outgoing mayor, was previously the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Mr. Davis was known as more of a moderate when he was a state lawmaker, and as the leader of JAX Chamber he supported positions such as protections for the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But as a mayoral candidate, he campaigned from the political right, promising to promote causes espoused by the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which is closely aligned with Mr. DeSantis. He also pledged to be tough on crime in a city that has struggled with stubbornly high crime rates for years, including under Republican leadership.
In advertisements, Mr. Davis and other Republicans cast Ms. Deegan as “radical” for backing demonstrators after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 — though Mr. Curry and other local Republicans also supported the protests at the time.
On Tuesday night, Mr. Davis said he would be willing to help Ms. Deegan for the good of the city. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Mayor-elect Deegan is successful in making Jacksonville the best Jacksonville it can be,” he said. The city has a strong-mayor form of government, giving the mayor broad administrative powers.
Mr. DeSantis, who won Duval County by an 11 percentage-point margin in November, did not endorse Mr. Davis until late March — after Mr. Davis had already been forced into Tuesday’s runoff against Ms. Deegan.
Beyond his lukewarm endorsement, which took place via Twitter on a Friday afternoon, Mr. DeSantis offered Mr. Davis little support. The governor did not visit Jacksonville to campaign, unlike one of Florida’s other top Republicans, Senator Rick Scott, who spent last weekend knocking on voters’ doors.
In 2020, Ms. Deegan lost a congressional race by 22 percentage points. On Wednesday morning, unofficial results showed she had won about 52 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. Davis’s 48 percent, a difference of about 9,000 votes. Turnout was about 33 percent.
Though 39 percent of Duval County voters are registered Democrats, compared with 35 percent registered Republicans and 24 percent registered without party affiliation, Republican voters outnumbered Democratic ones by about 3.5 percentage points on Tuesday — meaning that Ms. Deegan won independents and crossover Republican votes.
Five other Jacksonville Democrats were elected on Tuesday, one as property appraiser and four to the City Council.
Ashley Walker, a political consultant for Ms. Deegan, said that campaigning on local issues and with a candidate who connected well with voters were key to flipping Jacksonville from red to blue.
“Democrats in Florida have to eat the elephant piece by piece,” she said. “We have to go win in these local areas that are purple and get down to the base of some local campaigns to have any chance of coming back statewide.”
Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.
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