The battle to decide who will be Jacksonville’s next elected Sheriff is not expected to be resolved Tuesday night.
The field of four Democrats and one Republican who qualified for a snap Special Election called after Mike Williams resigned due to a residency violation is much more likely to narrow to two candidates than to be resolved with a clear-cut majority.
A survey released Wednesday by the University of North Florida’s (UNF) Public Opinion Research Laboratory (PORL) bears that out. Republican TK Waters and Democrat Lakesha Burton led the pack with 41% and 39%, respectively.
Burton’s vote share Tuesday looks like it will be limited by her three Democratic opponents, who entered the field after she began her campaign, suggesting that if the field hadn’t been Democrat-heavy she’d be better positioned to win outright. Repeat candidates Ken Jefferson and Tony Cummings scored just 8% and 5% support, respectively, with Wayne Clark garnering 4%.
Waters, a now-retired chief of investigations, initially had another Republican also in the contest, but Mat Nemeth found the exit after Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed Waters at the same Jacksonville press conference he appointed former Undersheriff Pat Ivey as fill-in Sheriff, essentially closing the field for Republicans.
There was pressure on DeSantis to go ahead and appoint Waters to the full-time job even then, but they had to settle for Ivey and an enthusiastic “that’s my man there” endorsement for the candidate. Yet while Waters could rely on party unity, Burton had no such luck, as she has made soliciting donors from Republican power brokers part of her strategy.
“Burton’s $1 million has come from a diverse group of heavy-hitting donors on both sides of the political aisle. In fact, more than half of her $1 million now raised has come from leading Duval GOP donors like Wayne Weaver, John Peyton, Ed Burr, John Baker, Michael Ward, Jeff Chartrand, Fitzhugh Powell, David Miller and other Republican donors. This is an incredible accomplishment for an African American female Democrat candidate for sheriff in Jacksonville, Florida,” consultant John Daigle said in the spring.
Burton scoring Republican support ended up being a double-edged sword even in the Primary, with the third-party Social Justice PAC messaging that she’s a Republican puppet with mail and more.
“Why is Lakesha Burton Taking Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars From Ron DeSantis and Lenny Curry’s Biggest Donors? GOP Puppet Lakesha Burton is Not a True Democrat — She’s Just Another Mike Williams Crony,” read a text, directing traffic to GOPPuppet.com.
Burton continues to defend the campaign strategy. In a statement released after the UNF poll was made public, she acknowledged the heat.
“Over the last few weeks, I’ve been attacked by those who say I’m too friendly with Republicans and by others who say I’m too friendly with Democrats. Those attacks, and this poll, tell me our campaign is on the right track. It’s not about power, prestige or party. It’s about the people who I will serve when I’m their sheriff.”
For their part, Waters’ team sees a scenario where Ken Jefferson, who came close to winning the General Election in 2015, cuts into Burton’s vote share more than predicted.
Evidence suggests there may be a splintering of the Democratic vote.
The last weekend saw a television ad from Burton’s political committee, targeting Jefferson as a “great TV personality” without “leadership experience.” Jefferson had his own television spot, meanwhile, saying “people of all races, backgrounds, and parties” urged him to run yet again for sheriff.
Whether those Republicans who were friendly to Burton early on come through for her in the fall is worth watching, as she would start any runoff with Waters at a cash disadvantage.
At this writing, Waters had $1 million cash on hand, four times what Burton had. Final finance figures for the August election are still pending.
While Waters is well-positioned, he still faces at least one challenge headed into Tuesday. The Tributary reports of inconsistencies between where Waters says he lives and where he’s registered to vote, an optics issue that could prove potent given the context of this Special Election.
“T.K. and his family live on Jacksonville’s Northside and are building a home on the Southside,” explained Alex Pantinakis. “Law enforcement officers’ exact addresses are protected by state statute.”
Those supporting Burton believe this issue will matter to voters.
Whatever happens in August and November, another election is coming soon.
The 2023 Jacksonville Sheriff’s race will start almost immediately after the November General Election. Qualifying for these candidates runs from Jan. 9 to Jan. 13, ahead of a First Election in March and a top-two finisher General Election in May if no March candidate wins outright.