PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
Former President Donald Trump stands on stage at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

OPINION | Will Donald Trump unite Jacksonville Republicans?

Published on January 29, 2024 at 5:08 pm
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The Duval County Republican Party is known historically for its schisms, and the last decade has seen more than its share.

Bitter power struggles for leadership, claims and counterclaims about where the money goes, vicious personal attacks – they’ve seen it, they’ve done it, they lived it.

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We see the consequences today in City Hall, where Democrat Donna Deegan is mayor, in no small part because Republicans couldn’t unite behind Daniel Davis in the spring despite massive resource advantages. 

Though Davis, LeAnna Cumber, and Al Ferraro agreed on a lot more than they disagreed on, the hurt feelings were such that many of those who supported the candidates who lost in March stayed home in May.

There was so much fractiousness during the 2023 cycle, in fact, that local Republicans have kept it going into 2024, with local partisans compelled to choose between the governor and the former president — personages who have each held particular influence on careerist conservatives in Northeast Florida.

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Some who benefited from Ron DeSantis’ patronage, like state Rep. Kiyan Michael, traveled to Iowa during a bitter cold snap to knock on doors and rally support ahead of the Florida governor’s disappointing distant second place in the caucuses. 

Michael, recall, was elevated in a crowded and expensive 2022 primary by a timely DeSantis endorsement that resonated with Beaches Republicans.

Others, of course, were on Team Trump, including two of the savviest political consultants from our region: Susie Wiles, who is now with Trump’s national operation, and Brian Hughes, who took over the Trump campaign’s Florida reins at a time when the GOP primary in March seemed like it would be actively contested. 

Wiles and Hughes have personal history with the governor, which doesn’t matter nearly so much now that the Ron DeSantis presidential campaign itself is history…if you can call hundreds of millions of donor dollars immolated on the Field of Dreams history. The governor and First Lady Casey DeSantis got some private flights out of it, at least. And consultants were made financially healthy. But it’s all over now. 

So, Republicans, led by the chair of the Duval County party, are being compelled to unite behind Trump weeks before the primary.

Local GOP Chairman and state Rep. Dean Black will introduce the motion to endorse Trump at a meeting of the state party next month. 

“Primaries are always contentious and stressful. They’re healthy and they’re an essential part of what we do. But when the people have spoken and made their wishes clear, it’s time to unify. The period of unification is always cathartic,” Black claimed to POLITICO.

Black isn’t the only big local Republican name asking the party to unite ahead of the 2024 election.

“It’s good to see people coalescing around Trump,” asserted former Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry recently. “If you’re a Republican that is hesitating at this point, you are the problem. This is a fight for our country.”

Curry, as those who listened to me interview him last summer on WJCT News 89.9 can attest, was behind Trump all along, of course. And there are plenty of stories of how irritating the Curry administration found the high-handed dealings of the governor’s office, especially when the pandemic started. But still, the mayor’s point is a simple one.

For Republicans, it’s unite around Trump — or else.

The risks of that strategy are obvious, of course. Trump is pushing 80 years old, prone to gaffes and misstatements, and, oh yeah, there’s that little matter of four indictments and 91 counts. But in a city that has gone from being reliably Republican to something more “purple,” it’s pretty clear after a long period of civil war inside the party that a different strategy is essential if the GOP doesn’t want Biden — or whoever is running for the Democrats in November — to take Duval County for a second time later this year. 

Countywide elections, mind you, are very different from the byzantine dynamics and rules that give a city with a Democratic plurality a GOP supermajority on the City Council. Democrats can and do win, as Mayor Deegan and Property Appraiser Joyce Morgan can tell you. 

In that context, if Donald Trump is somehow going to take Jacksonville, it won’t happen if the local party is a circular firing squad. The leadership is sending out the memo. Now the question is will the rank and file fall in behind them. 

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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