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Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during his election night watch party
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during his election night watch party in Tampa, Fla. on Nov. 8, 2022. Octavio Jones / Getty Images file

Duval County showed Florida's shift to the right

Reporter's notebook: Duval County in Florida was one of seven counties NBC News was closely tracking as key bellwethers.

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NBC News reporters tracked seven bellwether counties as part of the “County to County” project for the 2022 midterm elections. Here’s some of what they learned.

Democratic over-performance in the 2022 midterm elections did not extend to the state of Florida, where Republicans won big. And Duval County can help explain what happened throughout the Sunshine State.

Duval, which encompasses much of Greater Jacksonville, had long been a red-leaning county. But its emerging suburban demographics has made it more competitive in recent elections. Former President Donald Trump won it by just 1 percentage point in 2016, while President Joe Biden won by 4 points in 2020.

But this year Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis sailed to re-election in a landslide — he won the entire state of Florida by 19-points compared to his narrow win by less than half a point in 2018.

In “purple” Duval this year, DeSantis won by 12 points. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio also cruised to re-election, easily carrying Florida and Duval by 16 points and 9 points respectively. Both were blowouts in a state that hasn’t had a presidential win decided by more than 5 points in this century, and a blaring message that this former swing state has grown convincingly red.

As the pandemic changed politics across the country, it had one of the most dramatic impacts on Florida, where DeSantis launched himself to national prominence by railing against “lockdowns” and resisting pressure to implement more health restrictions.

“We have a governor who did a great job of maneuvering us through the Covid times and kept our state from being shut down,” Jacksonville resident Cliff Norton, a self-described independent voter, told us last year.

Florida became a center of pandemic-era population realignments became one of the destinations for people relocating to states with fewer restrictions. In 2021, Republicans officially overtook Democrats in new voter registrations statewide, and they made significant gains in Dane County.

Duval County Republican Chairman Dean Black celebrated their recent voter registration advantage, writing in a Facebook post, “Over the past two years we have cut the Democrats voter registration advantage in Duval County by more than 10,000, and we’re just getting started!”

With a commanding influence over the Republican state legislature, DeSantis was also able to pass several top conservative reforms and implement his favored maps in the redistricting process. He embraced culture war issues, championing legislation that targeted vaccine mandates, limited abortions, installed new guidelines on how race can be discussed in schools, and he signed his “Parental Rights in Education” law that opponents dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

DeSantis, a potential presidential contender in 2024, said all of this contributed to his win on election night.

“Now, this great exodus of Americans -- for those folks, Florida, for so many of them, has served as the promised land. We have embraced freedom,” DeSantis said.

“We reject woke ideology, we fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations. We will never ever surrender to the woke mob," DeSantis said. "Florida is where woke goes to die.”