In Jacksonville, Republicans Win Round One of 2016 Proxy War

The first 2016 election of 2015 didn't go the way Democrats liked.

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Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown last year in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Photographer: Keyur Khamar/Getty Images

The race for mayor of Jacksonville, a battle between a Democratic protege of Bill Clinton and a former chair of the Republican Party of Florida, is going to a runoff. That's not how Democrats wanted this to go.

Sure, Tuesday's all-party primary gave a small victory to Mayor Alvin Brown, the only Democrat in the race, securing a place for him in May 19's runoff. Republican Lenny Curry, making his first bid for office, ran just 4 points behind him. Curry got 38.4 percent of the vote, and Bill Bishop, a Republican councilman running as a moderate, got 16.8 percent. 

"I don’t know why anyone would vote against an incumbent and be swayed back in the second round," said Brian Hughes, a strategist and spokesman for Curry. "The mayor had the power of incumbency, which he used frequently in the last week of the race. A year ago he was polling at 71 percent approval. I just don't see the pathway for him."

Here's what makes Republicans so bullish on the race. All of them now admit that the 2011 mayoral race, which ended after two rounds in a narrow Brown victory, was bungled. Only 152,624 Jacksonville voters came out for the first round of 2011's election. Had the electorate stayed that size, Brown's 78,320 votes would have gotten him over 50 percent, and into a win.

That didn't happen. The efforts of both parties increased the turnout by more than 20 percent over 2011, to 183,728. Part of that was due to a Democratic push that included a weekend get-out-the-vote drive led by local U.S. Representative Corrine Brown, South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. Part if it came down to Republicans pulling out their voters. The rest of it was due to Democrats crossing over and voting for Curry or Bishop. According to the Republicans' calculations, the electorate–which they expected to have a narrow Republican registration advantage–was narrowly Democratic. And it did not immediately re-elect the Democratic mayor.

Brown has assiduously courted Republican support since taking office, and only a few national Republican figures–Jeb Bush and Rick Perry among them–have gotten behind Curry. Governor Rick Scott has stayed out of the race. Curry told me this month that he wanted Scott's endorsement, and if the race is polarized by party, Brown's going to have a harder time winning. 

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