Florida Democrats look to the abortion issue for an election boost

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"Vote in November" sign at the “Bans Off Our Bodies” rally along the downtown waterfront of St. Petersburg, Florida. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (24 June 2022).

By Dara Kam ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Following a pair of blockbuster decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, Democrats are galvanizing around abortion as a “front and center” issue that they say could affect races up and down the ballot in November.

Focus on the abortion issue exploded Monday shortly after the seven-member Supreme Court — which includes five justices appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — overturned decades of precedent and upheld a 2022 Florida law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The ruling will trigger a 2023 law preventing abortions after six weeks. Critics maintain that the six-week restriction, which will take effect next month, amounts to a virtual ban on abortions.

Justices, meanwhile, also allowed a proposal to go on the November ballot aimed at enshrining abortion rights in the Florida Constitution. As with all proposed constitutional changes, passage of the measure would require approval from at least 60 percent of voters.

The abortion rights proposal will share the November ballot with President Joe Biden’s re-election matchup against his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. While Trump lost nationally, he defeated Biden by more than 3 percentage points in Florida in 2020.

Political insiders had largely written off Florida for Democrats in this year’s elections, as Republicans have built a large voter-registration advantage and hold all statewide elected offices and supermajorities in the Legislature.

But Democrats are seizing on the abortion issue as a potential crack in the GOP’s dominance in the state.

Hours after Monday’s court opinions, Biden’s campaign issued a memo with the subject line “President Biden’s opening in Florida.”

”Make no mistake: Florida is not an easy state to win, but it is a winnable one for President Biden, especially given Trump’s weak, cash-strapped campaign and serious vulnerabilities within his coalition,” the president’s campaign manager, Julia Chavez Rodriguez, wrote.

Abortion rights “will be front and center this election cycle,” she added.

“We definitely see Florida in play. And unlike Donald Trump, we have multiple pathways to 270 (electoral-college votes) that we’ve been able to keep open,” Chavez Rodriguez told reporters during a press call Tuesday.

Democrats are blaming Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court appointees for a 2022 ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years guaranteed access to abortions. The 2022 ruling left decisions about abortion up to states and spawned a series of laws in Republican-dominated states, including Florida, restricting access.

Biden called Florida’s six-week limit “outrageous” Tuesday in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

“Yesterday, Florida’s Supreme Court upheld a state abortion ban, likely triggering the Governor’s more extreme law eliminating access before many even know they’re pregnant. Outrageous @VP and I remain committed to protecting reproductive freedom in Florida and across the U.S.,” Biden’s post said, making references to DeSantis, the six-week law and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Florida Republicans also are gearing up for a battle over abortion in November, with state House Speaker Paul Renner telling reporters “there will be an organized effort” to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment.

“The effort will really be focused on those in the middle,” Renner, R-Palm Coast, said Monday. “This (the proposed amendment), really, would go right up to the time of birth, with no opportunity for regulation whatsoever. It is extreme in its focus. It would be one of the most extreme laws in the country, as well as around the world, should it pass.”

But Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said Renner’s remarks about late-term abortions were “absolutely not” accurate.

“This is a scare tactic. What the amendment simply says is that abortions are permitted without political interference but before viability. And viability means when a pregnancy can survive outside the womb,” Goodhue said in an interview Tuesday.

According to the state Agency for Health Care Administration, 7,630 of the 84,052 abortions performed in Florida in 2023 were in the second trimester, or after 13 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions in the third trimester are outlawed in Florida, and none were conducted in 2023, according to the agency’s website.

Carlos Lacasa, a Republican former state legislator who is advising the Florida Women’s Freedom Coalition, a group backing the ballot initiative, advised proponents to educate voters with “50 years worth of statistics” about the infrequency of late-term abortions, “which are the type of abortions that are of most concern to voters who would otherwise be pro-choice … so that they’re not swayed by inflammatory rhetoric.”

The proposed amendment puts Florida “in play for people who want an end to government interference in their personal, private lives,” Goodhue said.

Lacasa also said the impending six-week ban will likely drive up support for the ballot proposal, known as Amendment 4.

“I firmly believe that that is the case, that it will enhance the prospects of passage of Amendment 4 by at least 5 percent. I think we’re already over 60 (percent). I think we’re going to pick up an extra five points minimum, thanks to the six-week ban because there will be a greater sense of urgency among those who believe in reproductive rights,” Lacasa told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

Before Monday’s rulings, Florida Democrats had already started using the abortion issue as a cornerstone of this year’s elections. As an example, Democrat Tom Keen flipped a Central Florida state House seat in a January special election in a campaign focused largely on abortion rights and property insurance.

Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, pointed to Keen’s victory during the Biden campaign press call Tuesday.

“This November, Florida will draw a line in the sand and say ‘enough.’ We will vote to put this (amendment) clearly in the Florida Constitution, and we will hold our elected officials accountable if they try to take away our rights,” Driskell said.

Supporters of the ballot measure are buoyed by the success of similar efforts in seven other states — California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Ohio and Vermont — following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in the case known as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

The Florida Supreme Court’s approval of Amendment 4 for the ballot is “shaking up the political landscape” in Florida, wrote Rick Wilson, a former Republican consultant who is a co-founder of the Lincoln Project.

The proposal is “consequential and will reshape the race in Florida — particularly down-ballot,” Wilson wrote in a Substack post on Tuesday.

Lacasa predicted the abortion initiative could drive up turnout in November among Democrats, independents and “Republicans such as myself who are otherwise skeptical about the ballot,” referring to the presidential candidates.

Lacasa offered some advice for Republican lawmakers about the pending six-week restriction.

“My advice would be to call a special session and fix this before November. It’s in your hands. It wouldn’t surprise me if those conversations are happening today,” he said.

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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