Democrat Donna Deegan won the Jacksonville mayor’s race Tuesday night, a shocking upset that hands Florida Democrats a major shot of energy less than six months after they were trounced in the 2022 midterms and considered left for dead by the national party.
Deegan came into Election Day as the decided underdog against Republican Daniel Davis, who is the head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and had a significant fundraising advantage. He was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, but that support was lukewarm. DeSantis did not do events with Davis or put his political muscle behind his candidacy.
With all of the city’s 186 precincts reporting, Deegan had a 52% to 48% advantage over Davis, who was vying to replace current Republican Mayor Lenny Curry, who was term-limited.
“Everyone said it could not be done in Jacksonville, Florida,” Deegan said, according to video of her victory speech. “We did it because we brought the people inside.”
The city of Jacksonville's official Twitter account sent a tweet congratulating Deegan on Tuesday night, writing, "We look forward to your leadership and vision as you help guide our City into the future."
In his concession speech, Davis called on everyone to "come together now and move our city forward," according to the site Florida Politics.
Deegan is a former TV anchor in the city with significant name recognition. After she left TV, she went on to found a nonprofit group that focuses on breast cancer research. She will be the city's first female mayor.
The win in Jacksonville, which was the most populous city in the country with a Republican mayor, is a huge morale boost for Florida Democrats, who have faced a series of stinging losses in recent years. Most recently, they were hammered up and down the ballot in a midterm election cycle in 2022, when DeSantis won re-election by nearly 20 percentage points. He also captured Duval County, which is composed mostly of the city of Jacksonville, by 12 percentage points.
“Just when people thought they had Jacksonville figured out, the voters have confounded expectations,” said Chris Hand, a government law attorney who served as chief of staff to former Jacksonville Democratic Mayor Alvin Brown. "Donna Deegan’s win is historic, not just because of who she is but also because of how she won: by running a positive campaign and building a coalition of Democrats, No Party Affiliation Voters and even some Republicans.”
Duval County’s political trajectory has been a roller coaster in recent election cycles.
It was won in 2018 by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who lost the election to DeSantis as Republican voters moved from the city to heavily Republican-leaning commuter counties. Two years later, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Last year, however, DeSantis and Republicans dominated in the county like they did the rest of the state. Duval was named one of seven bellwether counties as part of NBC News’ “County to County” project as a result of the swing nature of its politics.
The early-cycle victory is no doubt a significant start to the 2024 election cycle for Democrats, but the party will still face strategic disadvantages as it tries to regain its footing in a state where its recent political history has been defined by stinging losses. Most notably, Republican registered voters now outnumber Democrats in the state by more than 400,000.
Still, the win is both a shot of momentum and a big-time win to kick off the tenure of new state Democratic Chair Nikki Fried, who was elected to the post in February and was handed the uphill task of rebuilding the party in what had long been known as the country’s largest swing state.
“For too long, Jacksonville has been led by Republicans who are hellbent on taking away our rights, and it’s past time that the city is led by leaders with new, fresh ideas who have a plan for Jacksonville,” Fried said.