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After Major Election Losses, Duval GOP Needs New Leadership

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After losing the Jacksonville mayor’s race last month, local GOP leadership, on the surface, has been silent on why they lost a contest for an office that has been in Republican hands for the last eight years and controlled for 24 of the last 28 years.

But behind the scenes, the Republican leadership has already started mapping out a “blame game” scenario to sell to local GOP donors and supporters.

BREAKING DOWN THE NUMBERS

Democrat Donna Deegan defeated Republican Daniel Davis 52 percent to 48 percent with 217,287 votes cast.

Davis received 104,172 votes compared to Deegan, who won with 113,226 votes, a difference of 9,054 votes.

That wasn’t the only major GOP loss in Jacksonville. In the property appraisers race, Democrat Joyce Morgan defeated Republican Jason Fischer 51 percent to 49 percent. Morgan won with 109,803 votes while Fischer received 106,734 votes, a difference of 3.069 voters out of 216,429 votes cast.

At first glance, it appears that the Democrats mustered their voters and had a solid turnout. But that’s a wrong assumption.

It is true that early on, the Democrats led in the vote count with vote by mail and early voting. They went into election day with around a 6,000-vote lead over the Republicans. But on election day, local Republicans showed up to vote, overcoming that deficit to turn it around. At the end of election day, Republicans had a 7,200 vote lead over Democrats, a swing of more than 13,000 votes. The final numbers showed 91,571 Democrats, 98,651 Republicans, 25,138 non-party affiliated voters and 2,661 other voters came out to vote, with turnout standing at 33.07 percent.

WHERE THE LOCAL GOP DROPPED THE BALL.

Going into the May election, surveys from St. Pete’s Polls and the University of North Florida (UNF) showed Democrats with the advantage going into the election.

The UNF poll showed around 7 percent of Republican respondents said they supported Deegan while only 3 percent of Democrats backed Davis. More independents said they were backing Deegan, with 53 percent of them supporting her while 42 percent preferred Davis.

But the local GOP leadership ignored the polls. When asked about the poll results, Duval Republican Chairman Dean Black downplayed the numbers showing crossover support for Deegan. Black said he thought only about 2 to 4 percent of Republicans would vote for the Democrat. In fact, those numbers were higher, with around 10 percent of Republicans voting for Deegan.

The Duval GOP also missed out on keeping the independent vote, which normally supports Republicans, behind Black. A majority of these voters–54 percent–backed Deegan, while 46 percent supported Davis.

“Dean Black either willfully didn’t want to be honest about the potential disaster that was coming or was in just complete denial,” a Davis campaign worker told Florida Daily.

Another area where the Duval GOP, along with the Davis campaign, failed was in messaging

The GOP ran ads hitting Deegan for supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and attending protests back in the summer of 2020. Looking to build off that, the GOP tried to make accusations that Deegan supported defunding the police as one of the main issues in the campaign.

However, the local GOP and the Davis campaign failed to mention that term-limited Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF), and other Republicans, including then Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams and current Sheriff T.K. Waters, also attended, which was embarrassingly made known by News4Jax.

The ads against Deegan contained accusations that she would defund the police. These ads made an impact at the start, but after several weeks, the same ad got to be old and stale.

Instead, the GOP and the Davis campaign should have talked about the future, including focusing on important items like spending, crime, taxes and school choice.

After the election, Florida Daily interviewed staffers who worked on the Davis campaign but are also members of the local Duval Republican Executive Committee.

“This campaign was a complete s— show,” one campaign worker told Florida Daily.

Some of the Republicans who worked for Davis told Florida Daily that the local Republican ground game was non-existent, including not much in the way of phone banks or campaign workers knocking on doors. They said Black assumed Republicans showing up on election day would be enough to pull out a victory. The ground game was so dismal that several South Florida Republican clubs were contacted in the late afternoon of election day to help make phone calls to get out the vote in Duval County.

Democrats were outspent by the Republicans. Davis raised around $8.5 million compared to Deegan who raised $2.3 million.

THE DAVIS CAMPAIGN MADE MANY MISTAKES

The Davis campaign should have focused on showcasing the differences between him and his Democratic opponent. But voters can be excused if they failed to spot differences between the two candidates.

On taxes and spending, Davis was no different than Deegan. In 2020, Davis supported raising the local sales tax. In 2021, Davis supported raising the local gas tax. In 2022, Davis supported raising property taxes in a voter referendum on schools. The Democrats supported all of these measures as well.

Davis talked about smaller government in Jacksonville but never gave details on where he would cut. He never distanced himself from the Curry administration or took any positions of disagreement with the mayor, which also hurt him.

Under Curry’s leadership, crime in the city increased. So did spending. While he claims to be a conservative, Curry supported three major tax increases in just over two years.

“I think people saw Davis as a third term of Mayor Lenny Curry, and that didn’t help his campaign,” said former state Rep. Matt Caldwell, now a political commentator.

Another mistake the Davis campaign made was attacking Deegan for taking COVID relief for her charity, the DONNA Foundation–but the Republican candidate got called out by the media for doing the same thing when his group, the JAX Chamber of Commerce, took $900,000 of COVID relief funds.

LENNY CURRY HURT THE REPUBLICANS

The mayor’s office descended into juvenile antics by entering itself into the election, when in April, News4JAX reported that Curry’s team was going to delay a permit for the DONNA Foundation to host an upcoming 5k road race benefiting those with breast cancer. The race takes place every year around Mother’s Day.

Curry’s office insisted the charity permit was first denied due to the “unintended public perception” that the city was backing Deegan.

“The timing of this event, however, and the fact the namesake of the organization will be on a ballot for the city’s highest elected office mere days after the event may cause an unintended public perception, (and) It would be unfortunate for the timing to lead citizens to question the City of Jacksonville (COJ) involvement in the election process,” the mayor’s office insisted.

Countless emails came into my radio show where even Republican women expressed their anger at the mayor’s office for pulling this stunt. A piece of advice: women who have suffered from breast cancer do not look at party affiliation when lives are involved.

Florida Daily interviewed several key Davis supporters and they said they believed this was a political mistake, with some of them thinking it was probably the nail in the coffin for the Davis campaign.

THE GOP BLAME GAME

The weekend before the general election, Duval GOP Chairman Dean Black sent out a letter to Republican supporters that included mixed messaging.

In one part of the letter, Dean insisted the “strategy” was working and would lead to an election victory. But knowing there was a chance the Republicans could also lose, in that same letter, Black was already laying the ground game on who to blame if the GOP lost on election day.

In the letter, Black called out a group named Jax Integrity and Committeeman Robin Lumb for causing “division” in the local club. This was done to emphasize that if the GOP lost the election, Black would have a scapegoat and could point the finger at Lumb and others who have been critical of Black’s leadership. During the election, Lumb never endorsed or publicly campaigned for the Democrats.

Black also told other individuals that another reason for the election loss was because of the harsh fight in the first round between Davis, and Republican Council Members LeAnna Cumber and Al Ferraro. Black also hinted that Cumber’s negative campaign pieces against Davis during the first round of the election also helped lead to the Republican defeat. However, in the seven-person race, Davis beat Cumber by 17 percent. Cumber never endorsed or publicly campaigned for Deegan.

DUVAL GOP NEEDS NEW LEADERSHIP

With the election losses last month and the excuses blaming everybody else except for the lackluster party leadership, Dean Black should step down as the county party chairman.

As the chairman, Black has been a powerhouse for the party’s fundraising, something that was lacking in the years before he became chairman. His fundraising results cannot be denied. But not having a Republican executive committee meeting in the two months before a major election was a major misstep. Most GOP clubs always have meetings before the election to help get out the vote.

Over the last several years, the local GOP has enjoyed some mixed election results. In 2016, Duval County went for Trump, but in 2020 went for Joe Biden. In 2018, it went for Andrew Gillum in the gubernatorial race and then for Ron DeSantis in 2022. If Black can take credit for the GOP win, then should take responsibility when the GOP loses.

The Duval GOP‘s “conservative brand” has lost some of its mojo under Black. Many within the local GOP have criticized him for not having the party take stronger positions on local issues like spending, taxes and transparency.

In 2020, when the local school board supported raising the sales tax, the GOP didn’t oppose the tax increase. In 2021, when the GOP-controlled Jacksonville City Council supported raising the local gas tax, even as gas prices were already over $3 dollars a gallon, the GOP under Black ignored calls to take an opposing position, remaining silent on the tax increase. In 2022, the Duval School Board supported a voter referendum for a property tax increase. The GOP under Black once again refused to come out against the proposed tax increase.

In the 2023 election, not only did the Republicans lose the mayoral and property appraisers race, some in the local GOP felt that Black didn’t spend enough to help other candidates down the ballot running against Democrats.

Committeeman Robin Lumb said that Republican candidate John Draper’s loss in City Council District 14 is another black mark on Black’s record. While there are 19,000 Democrats, 14,000 Republicans and 12,000 voters with no party affiliation, Lumb insisted the race was “absolutely winnable.”

Lumb pointed out that Draper had only $11,000 on hand and Black was asked to help to provide the financial help that the candidate desperately needed. However, Black refused even with the large number of NPA voters in the district.

Republican Mike Muldoon, who ran in City Council District 9, was also seen as another potential win for the local GOP but came up short. Some Republicans accused Black of not spending enough money on that race.

Besides being the local party chair, Black is also a state representative. Black wearing both of these hats didn’t help the GOP win in this year’s election. It shows that Black cannot handle both positions. Black should step down as party chair but not leave the local committee. Instead, he should remain in charge of fundraising and possibly serve in other leadership roles that would be helpful to the local party.

Alexander Pantinakis, an advisor to the local GOP and one of Black’s campaign consultants, also needs to go. Pantinakis advised Black on the messaging–or the lack thereof–and on which local races the GOP needed to get involved with.

THE FINAL VERDICT

While GOP losses in Jacksonville can be laid at the feet of the local GOP leadership, not all the blame can be placed on Dean Black.

Daniel Davis, his lack of conservative principles and his inability to highlight any differences between him and the Democrats, especially on taxes, spending and crime, cost him the election.

Jason Fischer was his own worst enemy. His loss can be entirely blamed on his own campaign and throwing out his name for too many offices. He came off as a political opportunist.

In just under two years, Fisher announced he was seeking out four political seats, including running for reelection as a state representative and then running for state senator. After bailing on a state Senate bid, Fisher threw his name out for an open congressional seat before then running for Duval County property appraiser. This constant jumping in and out of races for various offices tarnished his image so badly that it was used against him in the first round by his opponent Councilman Danny Becton, a fellow Republican.

Even with the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Davis and Fischer could not win.

But not all was a wash for the Republicans. Conservative Chris Miller won a countywide city council race, outperforming other Republicans on both the margins and raw vote. Mike Gay, another conservative Republican, was elected to the city council as well.

Still, if the GOP wants to win in close elections in Florida, Republicans need to stop voting in favor of huge spending and tax increases and have to highlight the economic and, at times, cultural differences between the two parties.

Ed Dean wrote this analysis.

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