PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor

Opinion: Ron DeSantis doesn’t get Duval. Does he care?

Published on November 21, 2021 at 12:43 pm
Ron DeSantis in Tallahassee

In 2018, Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t win Duval County in the general election race against Andrew Gillum.

It was a bad year for a few statewide GOP candidates in Duval, including another who won the state but lost the county: Rick Scott also failed to carry the county against Bill Nelson. And local Republican Party leadership at the time took notice.

The chair of the Duval GOP lambasted DeSantis’ campaign for “poor messaging,” among a host of other issues that lost the county for him. 

Has the messaging improved since?

DeSantis continues to try hard to appeal to Jacksonville, or to the version that seems to exist in his mind at least. The effectiveness of those plays, of course, is a matter of debate.

The most recent slab of red meat for this market has been the continued focus by the governor’s office on charter flights of undocumented immigrants landing in Jacksonville. This story arc has been ongoing for weeks, and the DeSantis administration continues to massage the narrative as part of its anti-Biden repertoire.

The latest move was to push documents to News4Jax, showing that 78 flights indeed landed in Jacksonville. However, the I-Team noticed holes in what was provided from the governor’s office via a “reliable and confidential source.”

“Not all of the records News4Jax received made sense. One flight came from Ireland, for example, and another involves the National Guard. News4Jax has asked the state to clarify,” the report asserted. 

The search for clarity has been ongoing on this issue, with the governor and his staff struggling vainly to connect with a city that by and large burned out on blustery red-meat Republican posturing a few years back. DeSantis explained away the sourcing of the documents earlier this month to local media.

“I know when we initially got wind of this, it wasn’t through normal channels. It was people in the federal government who were effectively leaking this to us so that we have a heads up on it,” DeSantis said.

The governor has pivoted his messaging on a narrative peg: A murder last month in Arlington allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant, who DeSantis keeps contending was on one of those flights. 

And the messaging has been coordinated: His office, as the Florida Times-Union’s Nate Monroe noted, tipped off local outlets that the accused man was in court, an unusual move for a press shop perpetually in opposition to the “corporate media.”

Does DeSantis care about local murders beyond this one? 

Well, he hasn’t really demonstrated it yet, but of course he’s only had four years as a candidate and a governor to do so. But this selective messaging is of a piece with other plays he has made locally.

Remember when he used Jacksonville as the backdrop for a bill signing that banned transgender athletes from amateur youth sports? That event was staged deep on the Westside at a Christian school, where the governor made time to do an interview with the far-right One America News Network to ensure he had the friendliest possible framing.

Last year, DeSantis used Jacksonville as a backdrop for his rants against COVID-19 restrictions. He coined a memorable phrase defending Mayor Lenny Curry’s decision to allow people onto beaches during peak lockdown elsewhere.

“For those who would say you’re morons,” DeSantis said, “I’d take you any day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

DeSantis might like Jacksonville’s “morons.” But there weren’t enough of them to deliver him the county in 2018. 

Also by A.G. Gancarski: Can Donna Deegan win?

If he does somehow win Duval in 2022, it’s as much a function of Democrats’ dysfunction nationally as anything he does policy wise. 

But one could argue that Jacksonville itself doesn’t matter to the governor’s re-election strategy. The city is a backdrop and a place (or the type of place) many of his voters moved away from in pursuit of “good schools” or just a desire for long commutes. 

The governor made up for a narrow loss in Duval in 2018 with big margins in the exurban and rural counties to the south and west, and there is no reason to think DeSantis won’t have the same pull next year. 

It’s telling that DeSantis is coming back to the region to fundraise on Nov. 30 … but that event won’t be in Jacksonville itself. Rather, Ponte Vedra gets the hosting honors.

And it’s a big-ticket gathering too. For $25,000, donors can be part of a roundtable with DeSantis, then a grip-n-grin photo, and finally a “fireside chat.”

DeSantis, whatever one might think of his messaging, continues to dominate the statewide money race as well. His political committee entered November with $63 million on hand, well ahead of Democrats Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist, who had $3.26 million and $3.18 million at the same point.

Sign up for the Jacksonville Today newsletter

Your local weekday newsletter for news and ways to get involved in Northeast Florida.