PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
Donna Deegan | Submitted by campaign

OPINION | What the Donna Deegan surge means

Published on February 20, 2023 at 8:23 pm

Is Jax rejecting negative campaigning? 

Mayoral campaigns may wonder if their barrage of television ads are reaching viewers, and in Jacksonville, indeed they are, even viewers for whom the ads aren’t actually intended.

I heard a story just the other day about a sixth grader who apparently had seen one too many spots ahead of the March elections, which are now four weeks away. He was reportedly walking around his house talking about “Dirty Daniel Davis,” which while evidence of precocity, also means he is consuming materials that really shouldn’t be seen by anyone under 18. 

No, he was not a member of the family of LeAnna Gutierrez Cumber, whose JAX First political committee is responsible for that spot that Davis’ own legal team has tried to stop with threats of lawsuits against the television stations airing the so-called “dark money” ad. But the spot, which proclaims Davis to be “sleazy and dangerous,” may be part of her strategy that is doing her more harm than good, at least if one recent poll of the mayoral race is accurate.

A survey conducted February 13th by St. Pete Polls shows Cumber’s campaign at low tide, with just 4% support from the 478 likely voters surveyed. That’s good for fifth place, and represents a really bad return on investment given that her campaign and political committee burned through more than $900,000 to get that anemic total. She is on track to have spent the most per vote in Jacksonville history, given that she still had more than $2.1 million on hand at the end of last month, and will likely spend most of that given that there is no tomorrow if she loses next month.

The Davis campaign is polling somewhat better, garnering 18% support using many of the same character assassination tactics against Cumber. He ended January with roughly $3 million between his campaign and committee accounts, after having spent around $1.1 million that month. Barring a collapse, he is positioned to make the runoff against Democrat Donna Deegan, who has led in all polls, including the Feb. 13th survey, when she drew 35% support.

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Deegan has more than $600,000 on hand, which is a fraction of what her opponents have. So why is she polling better? And can she leverage what appears to be a first-place finish in March into a May victory, which would be the first Democratic win since Alvin Brown’s surprise victory over Mike Hogan 12 years ago?

Deegan spent much of her adult life on television news, before retiring to concentrate on her DONNA Foundation; she has a natural media savvy that Davis and Cumber lack. She’s benefited thus far from the “mutual assured destruction” approach to campaigning embraced by the big-money Republicans. But sooner or later the rough tactics the GOP hopefuls are deploying will be turned on Deegan, with oppo dumps manufactured and manipulated and shopped statewide to people who don’t know her or Jacksonville, or care much what happens here or to anyone in the city. 

And even if she wanted to, she wouldn’t have the budget to respond in kind. 

Republican campaigns are about bringing the base home after fractious primaries, as the Lenny Curry campaign in 2015 showed. Though the heat between Cumber, Davis, and Al Ferraro (at 10% in that same poll, despite being underfinanced) is searing now, what happens in the spring when the inevitable push for party unity is under way? The politicians may not kiss and make up, but history teaches us that Republican voters respond to red meat against Democrats, and Deegan will be no exception to that rule.

Expect also, if 2015 is any guide, that certain late-career Democrats will back the Republican nominee, as City Council members Denise Lee and Johnny Gaffney did before landing jobs in the Curry administration. Who would be that transactional? Someone who is out of the game currently, perhaps because they lost a recent election or went through another bout of adversity. Expect the ceremonial crossing of party lines in late April or early May, maybe from a former City Council member. 

Will Deegan have widespread Republican support? Polling says so. But will any of her supporters be Republican politicians with coat tails? That’s a much more open question. 

One final point to watch is what, if anything, the Florida Democratic Party does to engage. The chair position is again open, and if former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried somehow prevails, expect her and the FDP to play in May. One of Deegan’s key staffers is Caroline Korba, an alumna of Fried’s campaign for governor, so there is a connection. Fried also has appeared with Deegan already. And Fried will want to play to win in an early skirmish in an off-year election. It’s possible she may set up the Jax mayor race as a proxy battle against Ron DeSantis, who may be eying his own presidential campaign soon enough — and who, at least thus far, has not weighed in on who he wants to be mayor.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

A.G. Gancarski's columns were a staple in Folio Weekly for nearly two decades, and he has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes about the intersection of state and local politics and policy.

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