The Democratic upset in Jacksonville is a product of the GOP's war on cities
Republican big city mayors are a highly endangered species. That's not a fluke.
This work is entirely funded by paid subscribers. To support what we do, please consider becoming one.
By Noah Berlatsky
Last week, Democrat Donna Deegan won an upset mayoral election victory in Jacksonville, Florida — up to then the largest city in the country governed by a Republican mayor. Democrats also scored a shocking win in Colorado Springs, where independent, Democrat-aligned Yemi Mobolade won the mayorship. Colorado Springs has had Republican mayors since residents began directly electing the office in 1979. Currently, Republicans hold the mayor’s office in only two of the thirty most populated cities in America.
Why do Republicans have such trouble winning mayoral races? The answer is fairly obvious — Republicans hate cities. More, the party is increasingly defined by its hatred of cities. That anti-urban animus hasn’t torched the party’s national electoral fortunes yet. But if you’re a Republican, there are worrying signs.
“New York values”
The GOP is a white, Christian identity party built on demonization of marginalized people, including immigrants, queer people, Black people, Jews, and single women. Cities are centers of diverse, multiracial democracy. Republicans oppose diverse, multiracial democracy. Bashing cities is a natural outgrowth of Republican prejudice, as well as a convenient dogwhistle.
So it’s no surprise that Republican politicians have long and gleefully attacked certain iconic urban areas. During the 2016 Republican primary, for example, Ted Cruz sneered that candidate (and eventual victor) Donald Trump embodied “New York values.” Just in case anyone missed the point, Cruz explained that, “Everybody understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal and pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage, and focus on money and the media.”
In other words, for Cruz, Trump, by dint of being a New Yorker, is associated with queer people, Jewish people (“money and the media”), and feminism.
Trump himself has enthusiastically bashed cities — though (like many a New Yorker) he prefers to target Chicago. In 2019, for example, on a visit to Chicago, he called the city “a haven for criminals” which was “embarrassing to us as a nation.” In 2020 Trump reacted to a weekend of gun violence in the city by comparing it to Afghanistan. The subtext, as usual with Trump, isn’t subtle; he presents Chicago — a majority non-white city with many Black elected officials — as chaotic, crime-ridden, and un-American.
Cities don’t matter, right?
There’s a clear double standard here. When Democrats cast even a shadow of an aspersion on rural or white voters, the political press reacts as if the party has made a huge strategic and moral error. In 2008, while running for the Democratic nomination, Obama said that after small town midwestern voters experienced major job losses, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
This was obviously an effort (however clumsy) to express empathy, not a smear along the lines of Cruz’s “New York values.” But Obama’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, said the remarks were “demeaning” and showed that Obama was an “elitist.”
A note from Aaron: Working with brilliant contributors like Noah requires resources. To support this work, please click the button below and sign up to get our coverage of politics and media directly in your inbox three times a week.
Along those lines, there’s a steady drumbeat of articles in the press about how Democrats need to do better in appealing to rural voters. And it’s certainly true that Democrats could do better on many rural issues. At the same time, no national Democrat officeholder in my lifetime has ever said anything about “rural Iowa values,” or called rural Texas, or North Dakota, or rural anywhere a “hellhole” or an embarrassment to the nation. Democratic rhetoric on rural areas is virtually always focused on how to do better with voters in those places. Meanwhile, Republicans talk as if they’d like to light cities, and all their inhabitants, on fire. Why aren’t political pundits, and just everyone in general, scolding them for that?
Part of the reason is practical. Rural voters are treated as more important electorally because they are in fact more important electorally. In the Senate, large empty states like North Dakota and Wyoming have vastly disproportionate influence — which effectively means that rural voters have vastly disproportionate influence on electoral policy. To a smaller extent, that’s true in the Electoral College which determines presidential elections as well.
Even in the House and in local elections, urban voting power tends to be diluted. Cities are, by definition, dense; people are clustered close together. That makes it relatively easy for Republican-controlled legislatures to gerrymander them, looping voters into just a few majority urban electoral districts, so relatively sparse rural districts can outvote them statewide.
RELATED FROM PN: Marjorie Taylor Greene's "national divorce" is white supremacy
In addition, the press, pundits, and politicians downplay city voters out of prejudice. Again, city voters tend to be characterized as Black, Hispanic, Jewish, gay, and feminized; rural voters are characterized as white, Christian, straight, and male. These are stereotypes, not truths. But they dovetail with prejudices against marginalized people. That makes it easy to frame rural voters as the normal heartland Americans, and city voters as disreputable out-of-touch outsiders. When Democrats don’t win rural voters, they are losing REAL AMERICA. When Republicans insult cities, they’re just alienating a supposedly unrepresentative faction.
Maybe it’s not a great idea to outright insult voters
Still, a lot of people live in cities. In fact, about 83 percent of the US population is urban. At some point, an electoral strategy focused on insulting cities is going to backfire. Sure enough, the GOP is starting to reap what they’ve sown, at least around the edges of the field.
In the 2022 Illinois governor’s race, GOP candidate Darren Bailey repeatedly referred to Chicago as a “hellhole.” It’s one thing for Republican candidates for national office to take potshots at cities in blue states they are never going to win anyway. It’s quite another for an Illinois Republican to write off a city which is home to roughly 25 percent of the state’s population. Incumbent Democrat J.B. Pritzker crushed Bailey 55 percent to 42 percent statewide, powered by a whopping 50-point lead in Chicago’s Cook County.
Republicans are also seeing significant erosion in suburbs adjacent to cities. In 2014, Republican Scott Walker won Wauwatosa, a Milwaukee suburb by 5 points; in 2018 he lost it by 16. Then in 2022 — an off-year election in which the Democrat in the White House was supposed to ensure GOP gains — Republican Tim Michaels lost Wauwatosa by 40 points on his way to a humiliating defeat.
States vs. cities
Democratic strength in cities doesn’t just help in statewide elections. It provides a bulwark against some of the GOP’s worst policies. Chicago has declared itself an abortion sanctuary city; it won’t assist states in serving search warrants on those fleeing restrictive abortion laws in other states. Similarly, Kansas City, Missouri, has passed a measure to make itself a sanctuary city for trans and LGBT people.
In response, Republican controlled states have begun to try to interfere in city self-governance. Florida passed a law preventing urban areas from declaring themselves sanctuary cities for immigrants. Mississippi, in a grotesque power grab, essentially seized control of Jackson’s court system. And nationally, Republicans in Congress have tried to overturn DC local governance at every turn — sometimes with the (disgraceful) collaboration of Democrats.
These attacks on urban government are themselves an indication of GOP contempt for cities, and an escalation of it. Republicans show that they don’t care about urban voters; those voters toss Republicans out of office, and the GOP responds by trying to disenfranchise people in cities altogether.
The GOP in short has declared outright war on cities. To what extent it will pay political dividends for the party remains an open question; cities have a lot of disadvantages, and the GOP has few restraints. Still, losses in places like Jacksonville and Colorado Springs show people in cities fighting back. And journalists could help them by acknowledging the extent to which urban areas are under attack by the national GOP.
People in American cities are in fact people and Americans. Their representatives should treat them with respect. The fact that the GOP does not is yet another dangerous sign for this country and its democracy.
Tim Walz as the anti-DeSantis
By Aaron Rupar
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Public Notice to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.