2018 Florida gubernatorial election results by county. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Florida’s blue wave ebbed - but not in Jacksonville

The “blue wave” that swept the country largely passed Florida by. The gubernatorial and Senate races went to the Republican candidates, Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott, as did two of the three other statewide offices.

Jacksonville, however, bucked the statewide trend: in Duval County, Democrat Andrew Gillum surpassed DeSantis by over 16 thousand votes, coming in 51.7% to DeSantis’s 47.3%. Likewise, Bill Nelson beat Scott by over 6 thousand votes, good for 50.6% of the county electorate compared to Scott’s 49%. Jacksonville voters also preferred Democrat Nikki Fried as Commissioner of Agriculture, leaving CFO Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody the only Republicans to carry Duval in a statewide race.

This is a major change for Jacksonville, known as Florida’s most conservative major city. While the moderate Nelson won Duval twice before, no other Democratic state or federal candidate has carried the county in a statewide race since Bob Graham’s last Senate run in 1998. Duval voters haven’t swung for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Jacksonville native Steve Pajic’s 1986 bid. It’s been even longer in presidential elections, where Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to get a majority in Duval back in 1976.

The outcome is no fluke: Democratic returns have been creeping closer to parity for over ten years. What factors are behind these changes?

Demographic shifts

In large part, it’s down to two related demographic trends. First is the shift of thousands of core Republican voters outside the city limits. For decades, large numbers of mostly white, middle- and upper-income families have been migrating into new suburban neighborhoods - the phenomenon known as “white flight”. Today, much of Jacksonville’s suburban growth is happening in St. Johns County and other neighboring counties. The demographic moving there leans Republican - DeSantis won St. Johns handily, 65% to 34%.

Meanwhile, Duval County itself continues to grow rapidly. With so many white suburbanites heading for the homogenous bedroom counties, Duval is becoming more diverse by the year. In fact, Jacksonville is on the cusp of becoming a minority-majority city, with non-Hispanic whites making up only around 53% of the population and dropping. According to the Florida Times-Union, Duval County had 6,300 fewer white people in 2017 than in 2008, but 93,000 more African-American, Latino, Asian and other nonwhite residents. These groups lean Democratic.

Jacksonville is also attracting and retaining a bigger share of the region’s Millennial and Gen Z voters. According to one study, the city has become a Millennial destination, with a net gain of 6,354 people aged 20-34 in 2016 alone. Like ethnic minorities, this demographic votes more heavily Democratic than the folks flocking to the suburbs.

These are big changes, but the effect they’ll have on local voting patterns remains to be seen.

Republicans still dominate local and state elections

Jacksonville Democrats’ successes in the 2018 statewide races did not trickle down the ballot. In a familiar pattern, the party’s wins were exclusively in districts with African-American majorities. As expected, Al Lawson retained U.S. House District 5. Democrats also retained State Senate District 6 and State House Districts 13 and 14, which tilt so heavily Democratic that the Republicans didn’t bother fielding candidates.

Two races were close: Democrat Mia Jones came just 5,516 votes shy of seasoned local government veteran Jim Overton in the countywide Tax Collector race. In State House District 15, Tracye Polson fell short of Republican Wyman Duggan by just 1,211 votes. In all the other races - U.S. House District 4, State Senate District 4, and three other State House races, Republicans won easily.

This tracks with other recent elections. In the 2015 local elections, Republicans took the Mayor’s, Sheriff’s, and Supervisor of Elections races as well as 12 of the 19 City Council seats. In the 2016 general elections, Republicans won every race outside of three traditionally African-American districts.

Gerrymandering and organization

Gerrymandering is a big factor in the Republicans’ success in district races at the federal, state, and local level. Jacksonville districts are drawn so that urban black voters are packed into a few districts, meaning that Democrats win there easily while Republicans enjoy a strong advantage in the more numerous outer districts. Gerrymandering has contributed to the GOP emerging as the dominant party since the mid-1990s, following nearly a century of Democratic dominance, though the practice is as old as the state itself.

But even in citywide races where gerrymandering isn’t a factor, Republicans still predominate. This was borne out in Jim Overton’s Tax Collector victory in 2018, and has been the continuing trend. Republicans won all but two citywide races in the 2015 local elections, losing only to Tommy Hazouri and Jim Crescimbeni, both of whom have spent decades in the public eye. In 2016, Republicans won every citywide election.

These victories reveal the power of organization. The GOP has a strong bench of candidates ready to run at all levels of government. It also has the resources to fund their campaigns, both from within the party and from its various high profile donors.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have struggled to put forth and support competitive candidates. In a number of cases, they have not even fielded candidates. In 2016, several races had no Democrat running, including the highly vulnerable State Attorney and Public Defender races. Additionally, while there are a number of high caliber Democratic officials and office seekers, a series of corruption scandals has damaged the party’s brand. These disadvantages will not be easily overcome.

What the future holds

The status quo is unlikely to change in the near future. Despite the party’s decisive success just a few months ago, no Democrat is running for Mayor in 2019. Fully seven City Council races and the Tax Collector race also have no Democratic candidate. Even if they’re losing their edge in statewide races, local Republicans can rest assured that their message and candidates still resonate with Jacksonville voters.

Longer term, shifting demographics tides are bound to reshape the political landscape. In addition to the influx of ethnic minorities and younger voters, the restoration of voting rights to some 50,000 Jaxsons with felony convictions under Amendment 4 should have a major effect on voting patterns.

In their own ways, both parties are positioned for success in the future. The Republicans must channel their current organizational and fundraising advantages into staying relevant with voters down the road. And the Democrats can take advantage of changing demographics with more consistent and competitive campaigns. For both parties, success or failure depends on their ability to anticipate and meet the needs of the new Jacksonville.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.