In Florida's Old South, a new political battleground emerges

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Michael Sampson poses for photo at Friendship Fountain in Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Sampson cofounded the Jacksonville Community Action Committee to help drive change in a city emerging from its Confederate past. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The farther north you go in Florida, the saying goes, the deeper South you'll get. For generations, the Old South flourished in Duval County, a sprawling metropolis on the state's northern Atlantic coast that is home to Jacksonville and was once a reliable bastion of Republican power.

But when the Democratic gubernatorial candidate won the county two years ago, it energized Democrats and community activists aspiring to turn Jacksonville into another hub in the new, more Democratic South.

The race between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden will test that Democratic progress. Biden is counting on the county's sizable African American vote to do what no Democratic presidential candidate has done since Jimmy Carter: beat a Republican in Duval County and open another northern front in the contest for Florida's 29 electoral votes.

“Black voters in this part of the state are critical to winning statewide,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC. The national voter engagement project is sending more than 150 people to knock on doors in Black communities across Jacksonville.

While campaigns have traditionally focused on population centers farther south — Miami, Orlando and Tampa — Democrats can no longer afford to ignore the state's northern reaches, she said.

There's no doubt that strong Black voter turnout will be key for Biden.

Jacksonville, which largely shares its boundaries with the county because of their consolidated government, is home to nearly 1 million Floridians, nearly one-third of them Black. Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 40,000 registered voters in Duval County, and more than half of the county's Democrats are African American. But despite the advantage, the party's been held back by lower turnout.

Democrat Andrew Gillum, the state's first Black major party nominee for governor, bucked that trend two years ago when Democrats turned out in slightly greater numbers than Republicans. That was not the case when Hillary Clinton lost in Duval County to Trump in 2016.