Sheriff candidates dart to adjust campaign strategies for special election

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The governor has still not weighed in on who he will appoint to serve as interim sheriff to replace Mike Williams, who announced he’ll be retiring one week from now.

Regardless of who is appointed, the city council still needs to set dates for a special election.

That election will likely be held on the same date as the August primary.

We asked all six candidates who had initially planned to run for sheriff next March if they plan to jump into an August special election.

We heard back from all four, all of who emphatically said yes.

Candidates Ken Jefferson, Lakesha Burton, Mat Nemeth, and Wayne Clark all confirmed they do plan to run in the soon-to-be-scheduled special election for sheriff.

The University of North Florida political scientist Dr. Michael Binder said with that election likely to be held in August, candidates just lost seven months of campaigning.

“That’s a really big deal, especially if you had a strategy in place to gear up after the November elections,” said Binder.

Binder said other factors are also at play.

Fewer independent voters generally turn out for the primary election, since they aren’t allowed to vote in partisan primaries in Florida.

“Targeting those voters who would potentially have turned out in March, but might not have in August, is tricky and it’s complicated,” said Binder.

Plus, the makeup of this year’s primary may yield advantage for Democratic candidates.

“On the Democratic side, the gubernatorial race is hotly contested. Multiple candidates, and you would figure that would generate some turnout among Democrats,” said Binder.

Binder said with the narrowed time window, candidates with strong name recognition and deep pockets are at an advantage.

“So, there are opportunities out there for those folks that have the money, like a (T.K.) Waters, like a (Lakesha) Burton, to start spending it and building up their name recognition for regular voters,” said Binder.

Burton’s campaign told us it’s already adjusting.

“In a broad sense, spring 2023 would have been mostly about paid media campaigns. August 2022 becomes much more — although not completely –— about who can get their supporters out to vote,” said John Daigle, a campaign consultant for Burton.

Clark told us building name recognition will be a challenge in the shortened time frame.

“The challenge will be educating the public about my experience, qualifications, and why I am the best candidate for the position,” said Clark.

Jefferson’s campaign said it, too, is reviewing its strategy.

“Our campaign team will remain laser-focused on the task at hand. In preparation for the special election we will adjust and examine our strategy while continuing to move forward,” said Tabitha Higgs in an emailed statement.

While the winner of the special election will only serve for a maximum of seven months, though more likely only about five if the race goes to a November runoff, Binder said eking out a victory will likely yield advantage at winning a full four-year term in March.

“You’re seen as the sheriff, and being seen as the sheriff adds some respectability, adds some ‘oh, I don’t know if that person can do it’; well, they’re currently doing it. So, maybe that erases some doubt and ups their support,” said Binder.

City Council will likely make the special election dates official during their meeting, slated for Monday at noon.

[SIGN UP: Action News Jax Daily Headlines Newsletter]

Click here to download the free Action News Jax news and weather apps, click here to download the Action News Jax Now app for your smart TV and click here to stream Action News Jax live.