Republican leaders said over and over in recent weeks that a race for mayor of Jacksonville amounted to the first big Florida fight in the 2012 presidential race.
"The liberal organizers who want to keep the American people enslaved by wasteful spending and hideous deficits need to know that they have jumped the gun on 2012 and have awakened a sleeping giant," Duval County Republican chairman Lenny Curry declared this month before handing a $50,000 check to Republican mayoral candidate Mike Hogan. "We're going to send a message that Florida is red."
Republicans better hope Curry is wrong about the race being a harbinger, because an African-American Democrat named Alvin Brown this week was elected mayor of Florida's largest county. Across Florida and the country, stunned Republicans are struggling to understand the narrow upset in conservative northeast Florida.
"Jacksonville has always been a conservative stronghold for Republicans, and we're going to have to really study what happened in this race," said Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a U.S. Senate candidate who had expected Hogan to win handily.
Municipal elections tend to be much more about local issues than partisan politics, but the Jacksonville election does provide some warnings to the Florida GOP.
For one thing, it showed the Florida Democratic Party still has a pulse after the drubbing it took in 2010. The party spent more than $500,000 helping Brown, a centrist business school dean and former Bill Clinton staffer, and demonstrated a formidable turnout operation.
"Obviously, we're very aware of what they did there. It was very effective," said Republican National Committee member Paul Senft of Polk County, who said the committee was buzzing about the Jacksonville results while meeting in Dallas this week.
What's more, Brown's win showed the risks of fully embracing archconservative tea partiers — as Hogan did — and suggested Republicans may face some fallout over the perceptions of Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Scott, who frequently visits Jacksonville, is less popular there than President Barack Obama, and he campaigned for Hogan at a high-profile tea party rally.
"We were very happy when Rick Scott came to town. We were all for that," said Brown's pollster, David Beattie, laughing.
The race was not a referendum on Scott, Beattie noted, but the deep cuts to education that Scott and the Legislature worked on during the legislative session helped drive much of the campaign debate. School officials in Jacksonville talked about eliminating athletic programs and cutting school to four days a week.
"It allowed us to talk about who's going to support public schools in Duval — the guy who cut public school funding while in the Legislature or the one who has two kids in schools," Beattie said, noting that northeast Florida has a younger population than much of Florida.
Brown campaigned as probusiness centrist who would focus on job creation and never raise taxes. A number of prominent Republicans, including former St. Joe Co. chief executive Peter Rummell, supported him.
Hogan, meanwhile, cast himself as a tea party candidate in the mold of Scott. He avoided debates and shied away from coverage.
"In the November elections, if you said 'tea party,' that was fabulous," noted Chis Verlander of the business group Associated Industries of Florida, which backed Hogan. "But the tea party's sex appeal, for lack of a better term, may not be as strong today."
Some veteran GOP activists in Jacksonville are grumbling that tea party members in Jacksonville proved far better at making noise than winning votes.
First Coast Tea Party leader Billie Tucker, an early Rick Scott supporter, raised eyebrows when she railed against Brown-supporting "zombies" spreading through Jacksonville. Among the tidbits of advice she offered conservatives on her blog: "Pray. Zombies hate people who pray. They don't believe in it and that is a good thing! We know the power of prayer can release a Zombie from the stronghold they are under. Pray for all the Zombies and keep praying that they will see the light."
Democrats welcomed the tea party visibility.
"The tea party absolutely was a factor in our favor," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "There was a tea party surge in 2010, but it's subsided. They've turned moderate and independent voters off, and it helped Alvin garner as much Republican support as he did."
Curry, the Duval GOP chairman, said the party will take nothing for granted in 2012.
"There's plenty of blame to go around," Curry said. "What we know is that a lot of Republicans voted for Alvin Brown. The party's going to move on, plug our holes and be ready for next year."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]