PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
Daniel Davis and Donna Deegan debate at Jacksonville University before the March 2023 election. | Will Brown, Jacksonville Today

OPINION | What Donna Deegan must do in Thursday’s debate

Published on April 17, 2023 at 5:00 am
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Who needs to win Thursday’s debate between Daniel Davis and Donna Deegan in the mayoral race? The answer depends on how you look at it.

One analysis would suggest that Davis needs it more. Deegan was 15 points ahead of him in the March election, while an April Frederick Polls survey commissioned by her campaign suggests that she is still up 8 points in a binary runoff. 

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The R+6 sample is intended to approximate a worst case scenario for Democratic turnout, which historically underperforms the party’s registration edge. The poll suggests that she is drawing one in every five GOP voters who went for non-Davis candidates in the March election.

Meanwhile, a University of North Florida survey released Monday shows her with just a 1-point lead, and 89% of Republicans backing Davis. Deegan is still up 11 points with NPA voters at least. But that poll is only R+1, which seems to be a pessimistic read on Republican turnout given March’s R+4 performance.

All in all, the polls are relatively good news for Deegan, but she has reasons for pessimism as well. 

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For starters, a snapshot poll of the race this early doesn’t tell the whole story. It won’t gauge the cumulative impact of the incessant attacks from the Duval County GOP on Davis’ behalf of Deegan as a “woke liberal” who went to Black Lives Matter protests three years ago and hasn’t committed to giving Sheriff T.K. Waters his full wishlist. 

The GOP has all the money it needs to keep hitting Deegan, who responds on social media and through earned media. The state of the mayoral race is asymmetrical warfare right now, and it’s going to continue to be such. The goal for Davis and his adjuncts is to bring the GOP base home, to discourage Republican women and NPAs from voting for Deegan, and to undermine her through May 16. There is no commensurate Deegan attack strategy in kind.

Deegan has made a big bet that the “change for good” message will trump the familiar attack style of Davis consultants Tim Baker and Erin Isaac, and while that may have played in March when GOP candidates fragged each other, it’s a chancier play in May when partisanship tends to prevail. We saw it in 2015 when Republican Lenny Curry brought previous Bill Bishop voters home. And even though Davis has been grievously underestimated as a candidate, there’s no reason to think he can’t do the same thing this year, especially given his strategy is to present a contrast to the left-of-center Deegan.

We don’t really know what Deegan or Davis would do in office, but we do know this: With a City Council with a likely GOP supermajority, Deegan is far better positioned to be an executive check on the Council’s caving into developers, or passing pandering bills like anti-panhandling legislation. She could be the force that moves the city into the 21st century on issues like cannabis decriminalization and finding a way to stop policing that targets deleveraged minority populations. Yet she hasn’t overtly made the case that she could be the veto pen this City Council deserves.

She needs to make that case Thursday. And she needs to hone in on Davis’ brand of conservative politics as a statist brew that would see incentives doled out, such as a new stadium roof or a more expensive pension plan to police, in a way that will divest the city of resources for septic tank phase-outs, infrastructure renewal in legacy neighborhoods economic equity and so on. 

Davis will have his practiced lines. He has forums this week with the Northeast Florida associations of builders and Realtors and with the Fraternal Order of Police. Those friendly events were rehearsals for Davis, who delivered an absolutely anemic and scattered performance in the March debate. It should be said, however, that Deegan wasn’t particularly impressive during that event either, plodding through a delivery that seemed designed not to make a mistake rather than to try to knock her opponents out. 

Deegan shouldn’t approach this debate like she’s eight points ahead or even one point ahead; rather, she needs to act like she’s eight points behind.

History teaches us that polls that look good for Democrats weeks before an election may as well be written with invisible ink. Ask Andrew Gillum about that. Deegan needs to demonstrate the killer instinct that she would need if elected mayor, dealing with a hostile City Council and a sheriff who made his big bet on getting to Supermarket Sweep the city’s general fund.

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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