How national Democrats helped pull off a surprise win in the Jacksonville mayoral race
Democrat Donna Deegan’s upset win in the Jacksonville mayoral race this week not only re-energized beleaguered Florida Democrats, but also etched out the early draft of a potential 2024 playbook for winning in the once-reliable swing state that has turned red.
For Democrats in the state, it was also encouraging to see that national party leaders, including President Joe Biden's political operation, lent a hand in the race and aren't abandoning Florida.
The 2022 midterms saw Democrats in Florida trounced up and down the ballot, even as the party exceeded performance expectations nationally. The outcome appeared to cement a long-simmering narrative that Democrats could no longer win in Florida.
Midterm investment from national party organizations dried up, and former Florida Democratic Party leaders openly blamed their national counterparts for Gov. Ron DeSantis winning by nearly 20 percentage points and Republicans securing supermajorities in both the state House and Senate. DeSantis endorsed Republican Daniel Davis in the Jacksonville mayoral race, but did no real campaigning nor offered significant political support.
But the Jacksonville win was a shot of unexpected momentum for Democrats and is giving Biden's re-election campaign a sense of early optimism about Florida.
Deegan ran her campaign generally avoiding the culture war fights that have defined politics in Florida over the past few years. With a more positive focus, she was able to take back the largest city in the United States led by a Republican mayor. It was a place DeSantis won by 12 percentage points during his 2022 re-election.
“Donna ran a very localized grassroots campaign that focused on issues that were important to voters in Jacksonville, and her message of change and unity energized supporters across the political spectrum,” Ashley Walker, Deegan’s top consultant, told NBC News.
Yet the race was very much on the radar of Biden's team, which saw Deegan’s avoidance of culture war fights that have defined Florida’s political climate over the past few years as particularly good news because it’s a strategy they want to employ.
“The Biden re-election found Jacksonville’s election extremely encouraging for a couple reasons. First, Donna is running in a way and on issues that are very Biden coalition — kitchen table issues, unity over division, culture wars, optimistic messages,” a source close to Biden’s political team said. “Second, it also sends a strong signal to folks who count us out in Florida.”
“A unifying candidate won a county-city by a not insignificant margin that went 12 points for DeSantis just six months ago,” the person added.
Biden's political team and the Democratic National Committee played a direct role in the race, even as national Republican groups largely sat it out.
The DNC helped coordinate operations like text messaging and voter contact programs, and it activated the large network of Biden supporters, which made direct contact with roughly 130,000 Jacksonville voters over the course of the race.
DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison “was here right after I got elected, and in March I made sure to sit down with him and talk about the importance of Jacksonville,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said. “It was the largest city that did not have a Democratic mayor. I told him we had a fantastic slate of candidates, but we needed help. They helped, and it helped swing momentum.”
Harrison also had made a handful of recent trips to Florida, including in March for a fundraiser event at the Tallahassee home of Democratic fundraiser Brice Barnes. At that point, months before Election Day, Jacksonville was a topic of conversation.
“When Jaime Harrison was in town, he committed to helping the Jacksonville race,” Barnes said. “I think this shows Florida is not off the map.”
Florida state Sen. Shev Jones, who was recently named to a national Biden re-election advisory panel, said he also had several conversations with Harrison about the race.
“Chair Harrison has made trips to the state and met with donors to make sure their efforts were reaching Donna Deegan and other Democrats in Jacksonville,” Jones said. “I had a conversation and he made it clear to me that he did not agree with the rumor mill that said Florida will not be in play, and I think you can see that in the national party lending Deegan a helping hand.”
The role of national Democrats has been a flashpoint in Florida in the aftermath of a brutal 2022 midterm cycle. Former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz surprised many when he issued a memo publicly blasting national party leaders, particularly the fact that, he said, they spent less than $2 million in the state compared to $60 million during the 2018 midterm election cycle.
“What was also clear this cycle is that national Democratic organizations made a determination about Florida,” Diaz wrote in December 2022. “Funding and resources that have helped keep our state competitive were zeroed out and redirected elsewhere this cycle.”
Jones said state party leadership blaming the national party for its failures was not a smart move.
“To be very frank, under the last [Florida Democratic Party] administration, the question became how much did you engage the DNC?” he said. “I do not think using the national party as a scapegoat helped us.”
While Deegan's win was big, there is no scenario where they will not remain underdogs headed into the 2024 cycle. At every level of Florida politics, Republicans hold a considerable advantage and will be heavy favorites in key races. Sen. Rick Scott, a former two-term Florida governor who can self-fund, is already gearing up his re-election bid as Democrats still try to recruit a candidate.
Democrats in Florida also have to contend with the national party starting to focus resources on other states that have been trending in their direction, most notably North Carolina. A Biden campaign memo penned by campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez and released Thursday acknowledged some new states are in play, but said Florida is still on their radar.
“We will protect recent Democratic gains in states like Arizona and Georgia, and look to expand the map even further in states like North Carolina and Florida,” she wrote.
Republicans, who control nearly every level of political power in Florida, remain undeterred by the Jacksonville win and see Democrats desperate for good news as overhyping the momentum it will bring.
“The Democrats are making a lot about a single victory in a county that has rarely been reflective of the environment in the state,” said Evan Power, the vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida. “There were a ton of issues that came into play but Republicans still outperformed Democrats in turnout by 3%.”
“If we keep doing that in state and federal elections, there will be continued big wins ahead for Florida,” he added.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com