Abortion in Florida: Democratic candidates just got a boost for 2024

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Republicans like Donald Trump and Rick Scott are still favored to win their races in Florida this year.

But 2024 just got a lot more interesting.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court paved the way for a six-week abortion ban to go into effect — while allowing a constitutional referendum to protect abortion rights onto the 2024 ballot. The dizzying combination of decisions left the fate of Florida abortion rights in the hands of voters, and returned the state to a familiar place: the center of the political universe.

President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign immediately seized on the decisions, releasing an advertisement bashing Trump, his Republican opponent, on abortion. The campaign released a memo on Florida calling the state “winnable” and highlighting how abortion will factor into Democrats’ messaging this November.

“We’re going to compete — and we’re going to make sure that Donald Trump has to compete — in the state of Florida,” Biden-Harris campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodriguez said on a Tuesday call with reporters.

Trump, for his part, has been mum on abortion in recent days. On Tuesday, he told reporters he’d issue a statement on the topic next week.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal abortion protections with its decision in the 2022 case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, abortion has proven to be a winning issue for Democrats. Voters have turned out in massive numbers in otherwise red states like Ohio and Kansas even in off-year elections to support access to the procedure.

The issue is offering Democrats hope in Florida, which was once America’s largest swing state but has drifted to the right in recent years. The abortion ballot initiative, called Amendment 4, will need 60% of the vote to pass.

But political scientists who study the effect of abortion on elections say the issue may not affect the presidential electorate as profoundly as liberals might hope.

Michael Binder, the faculty director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida, said not to expect abortion to change the results of the races at the top of the ticket.

Lower-profile races for Congress or the state Legislature, however, could be a different story. Binder said Democrats running down the ballot should be “ecstatic” about running alongside Amendment 4.

Some liberal, young voters wouldn’t have voted in November without abortion in play, he said. If they do turn up now, Binder said, “you have to assume … they’re going to hit ‘D,’ or they’re going to hit nothing” on down-ballot races.

Democrats agree. A spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that two Republican U.S. representatives in swing-ish districts, Miami-Dade County’s Maria Elvira Salazar and Pinellas’ Anna Paulina Luna, suffered a “serious blow” with abortion being allowed on the ballot. (In a statement, the Luna campaign downplayed abortion’s role in the race, writing that Luna doesn’t have a “legitimate” Democratic opponent.)

The increased attention on Florida from national groups and the Biden campaign could push close local races over the top, experts and campaign operatives on both sides of the aisle told the Times.

The Supreme Court’s twin decisions will also mean that Florida will likely have a six-week abortion ban on the books when voters go to the polls in November. Although such a ban is an extreme restriction, it could make the issue particularly salient for voters, said Alice Clapman, a lawyer who’s litigated abortion cases but now serves as senior counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s voting rights program.

Democrats are trying to put abortion at the center of Florida’s U.S. Senate race, which is likely to feature incumbent Republican Rick Scott and Democratic former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. (Mucarsel-Powell has six opponents in the August Democratic primary, but she’s reported the highest fundraising total of any Democrat by far; Scott has a primary challenger as well.)

Mucarsel-Powell has criticized Scott for supporting a national abortion ban and for saying that he would have signed the six-week ban that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last year. For his part, Scott has said Mucarsel-Powell is a “liar” for misrepresenting his stance on the federal ban. (Scott voted for a 20-week abortion ban in 2020, as did 51 other Republican senators and two Democratic ones.)

Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign expects to get a boost from the ballot initiative, she said.

“Any time we have higher voter turnout, we have seen time and time again that it benefits Democrats because people know who is on the side of democracy, who’s on the side of freedom, who’s on the side of protecting women,” the candidate said in an interview.

In 2020, Trump defeated Biden in Florida amid high presidential election-year turnout. That year, voters also approved a referendum mandating a $15 state minimum wage — evidence that Florida voters can like Republican candidates and progressive causes at the same time.

The Supreme Court on Monday also allowed a recreational marijuana ballot initiative to reach 2024 voters; it’s unclear what effect that could have on turnout.

Republicans officially surpassed Democrats in overall voter registration in 2021, and the gap has widened to the point that there are about 856,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.

Scott’s team had been planning for abortion to land on the ballot, said Scott political adviser Chris Hartline. He granted the issue could help Democrats, but said that the party would still face an uphill climb in the highest-profile races. Scott, who has thrice been elected statewide, has much better name recognition with voters than Mucarsel-Powell, Hartline said.

“She’s going to desperately try to hitch her wagon to it, but at the end of the day it’s not going to help her much if nobody knows who she is,” Hartline said.

The group sponsoring the proposed abortion amendment, Floridians Protecting Freedom, has distanced itself from partisan affiliation. Lauren Brenzel, the campaign director, said research shows that Democrats, independents and Republicans alike support the initiative.

A statewide poll of registered voters conducted by the University of North Florida in November found 77% of Democrats supported the amendment, while 17% opposed it. Among Republicans, 53% supported and 39% opposed.

Some Republican-aligned groups are planning a show of force against the initiative. Florida’s Republican House Speaker, Paul Renner, said his party would organize an effort to turn out moderate voters who don’t support the amendment. Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a national group that pushes for abortion restrictions, will also be involved in Florida, the group’s southern regional director, Caitlin Connors, said. So will the newly formed political committee Florida Voters Against Extremism and Created Equal, a group that brings photos of fetuses and graphic images of abortions to college campuses and elsewhere.

Floridians Protecting Freedom, meanwhile, is still working to get more support to spread the word about the ballot initiative. The group reported more than $15.6 million in fundraising through Dec. 31. 1199SEIU, the nation’s largest health care labor union, donated more than a combined $662,500 to the effort from its corporate office and state chapters around the country. Open Society Action Fund, a group associated with the Democratic megadonor George Soros, chipped in $500,000 in September.

But even with all of the noise around abortion, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that voters will see it as the most important issue come November. A Gallup poll from March found that just 3% of respondents said abortion is the primary noneconomic issue facing the country. Issues that rated higher included immigration, poverty and unifying the country.

Hartline, Scott’s adviser, said Democrats would be making a mistake if they spent the next seven months messaging exclusively about abortion.

“If their entire campaign in Florida, to the extent that they have one, is based on abortion, and they’re not talking about inflation, and they’re not talking about the border, and they’re not talking about international affairs?” Hartline said. “That’s a good way to get the abortion initiative passed and get swamped in other races.”

Times staff writers Langston Taylor and Ivy Nyayieka contributed to this report.