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Bareknuckled brawl between John Rutherford, Donna Deegan in sole TV debate

Incumbent Rutherford didn’t debate Democrats in 2016, 2018.

Florida’s 4th Congressional District, designed as a safe space for Republicans, is seeing a more spirited race in 2020 than recent cycles.

The R+20 district is still polling toward a double-digit victory for incumbent Rep. John Rutherford, but Democratic challenger Donna Deegan had the fundraising momentum in Q3, ahead of the only debate between the two in the 2020 cycle.

For Rutherford, who didn’t debate opponents in 2016 or 2018, this was a rare confrontation from a critic, and one skilled in the medium of television, having spent the bulk of her career as a broadcast journalist for her hometown First Coast News.

Criticisms, it turned out, went both ways, with Deegan and Rutherford finding scant common ground in their 60 minute engagement on WJXT-TV. =

Rutherford, attacked as a partisan by Deegan ahead of the debate, introduced himself as “bipartisan,” a “problem solver” who “works with people on the other side of the aisle” on a number of issues.

Deegan kneecapped that premise, chiding the Congressman for attending “maskless rallies” on behalf of President Donald Trump, the first of many contrast statements during the debate.

“You’re going all over the place, to super-spreader events,” Deegan said, with Rutherford taking the Trump line of blaming the ongoing infections on the original source of the Wuhan Virus.

Character assassination was a leitmotif of the program.

Midway through, Deegan said she was called “extreme, left-wing, socialist” by Rutherford’s campaign, a move she deemed a “scare tactic.”

Moderator Kent Justice allowed the candidates to pop questions at each other, which led to one of the zippier moments of the debate.

“You’re running as a moderate Democrat,” Rutherford said, but petitions to legalize recreational cannabis and ban assault weapons were signed at her events.

Deegan said she backed marijuana decriminalization, before saying Rutherford was “owned by the NRA” as part of her answer.

The debate went to institutional racism, specifically within law enforcement.

Rutherford “rejected the narrative that America is somehow a racist country,” saying that a look at police shooting data reveals that only nine of those shot last year were unarmed African Americans.

Deegan painted Rutherford as an apologist for police shootings.

“He’s got blinders on this issue,” he said, charging that Rutherford’s Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office was known for them.

“This gentleman called Black Lives Matter a hate group,” Deegan said, calling for redress for “systemic racism.”

Rutherford said the organization included “self-avowed Marxists” and was “anti-God, anti-family, anti-capitalism, anti-law enforcement.”

“The organization is a Marxist organization,” the Congressman charged.

Another talking point was defunding the police.

“It’s one of those things I get hit with because I’m a Democrat,” Deegan said, distancing herself from that clarion call, a smart move in an R+20 district.

For what it was worth, the Deegan campaign declared victory in a midnight media release.

“Donna Deegan won the debate tonight. The choice couldn’t be clearer,” asserted campaign manager Erica Connor, who said the candidate would “not allow Rutherford to hide from his failed record.” do differently despite the loss of over 215,000 Americans.”

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at

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