Florida’s abortion ruling puts Trump on the spot over DeSantis’ bans

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Ron DeSantis made a risky political bet by signing abortion bans into law in Florida. Now, it’s Donald Trump who could pay for it.

The state Supreme Court on Monday upheld a 15-week ban signed by DeSantis — a move that in 30 days will trigger a far more restrictive 6-week ban also backed by the governor, just months before the November election.

The justices also ruled that Floridians will be able to vote in the November election to reverse the ban and make abortion broadly legal in the state through a constitutional amendment. The proposed amendment will put the abortion question on the ballot below voters’ choices for president, Senate and other down-ballot races right as voters weigh the impact of the DeSantis-backed restrictions.

DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor who dropped out of the presidential race in January and still has more than 2½ years left in his term, won’t be on the ballot. But with abortion now front and center in Florida, Trump will face numerous political attacks on the issue from the Biden campaign and questions about what he thinks voters — including himself, a Florida resident — should do about the amendment.

The same is true for Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a Trump ally who is up for reelection and who, like Trump, has a frosty relationship with DeSantis.

“Abortion is to Republicans what immigration is to Democrats,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). “If they're talking about it, they're losing.”

Trump and Scott are still both favored to win Florida. Republicans far out-register Democrats in the state, and the Biden campaign hasn’t prioritized Florida as a core battleground. But the existence of a restrictive abortion ban coupled with the abortion amendment in the nation’s third-most-populous state still presents an extra political obstacle for Republicans at a time when the national party has been twisting itself in knots trying to figure out a way to talk about abortion.

"In the era of Roe v. Wade, Republicans could accommodate the part of their base that was pro-life without actually having to do anything about it. It was a blessing for them,” said former state Rep. Carlos Lacasa, a Republican who supports abortion rights. “Now those days are over."

After the rulings, Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez issued a memo about Florida declaring that the president was "in a stronger position to win Florida this cycle than he was in 2020" and that the state was now "winnable" for Democrats.

Abortion rights advocates pushed to get the issue on the ballot after DeSantis curtailed abortion access. Once broadly available, Florida now has a 15-week ban that has no exceptions for rape and incest. The six-week ban is considered by opponents to be nearly an all-out ban given that most women don't know they're pregnant that early on. The ban will also affect patients who travel to Florida from across the Southeast, where abortion is similarly outlawed.

Trump has described DeSantis’ six-week ban as a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake” and has avoided getting into specifics publicly about which abortion restrictions he supports, though he has reportedly privately floated the idea of a national 16-week limit. During the GOP primary, DeSantis unsuccessfully tried to pin down Trump on the issue, even concluding that the former president — who appointed the deciding U.S. Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe — was not “pro-life.”

As for Scott, he said less than a year ago that he would have signed the six-week abortion ban into law if he was still Florida governor. Back then, he signed a 24-hour waiting period into law. As a senator, he once supported a 20-week federal limit but has since backed off, saying his position changed after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. He recently told POLITICO that states, not the federal government, should set abortion policy.

But his likely Democratic opponent, former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, said she plans to put Scott on the spot over Florida’s abortion policies. “You better bet that Rick Scott is going to have to answer for that,” she said. “I think that he's been trying to backpedal because he knows that it's an issue that he is not going to win when it comes to November.”

She stressed too that, outside of Florida’s current restrictions, Scott had his own record on abortion rights.

“Floridians are not going to forget what he did when he was governor,” she said. “He can try and hide, we won’t let him forget.”

The Scott campaign didn’t directly address POLITICO’s questions but in a statement stressed the importance of making adoption more affordable and added that Floridians “agree that there should be some reasonable limits placed on abortion."

The Republican Party of Florida has said it will urge voters to cast their ballots against the referendum in November, and DeSantis' office said he was opposed to the court putting the referendum on the ballot.

DeSantis, Republicans in the Legislature and Scott also argue that the language of the ballot is too permissive and “extreme": It allows abortion until “viability,” generally understood to be at around 24 weeks of pregnancy, and provides undefined “health” exceptions for later abortions.

"President Trump supports preserving life but has also made clear that he supports states' rights because he supports the voters' right to make decisions for themselves," said Brian Hughes, senior adviser to the Trump campaign. "Where President Trump thinks voters should have the last word, Biden and many Democrats want to allow abortion up until the moment of birth and force taxpayers to pay for it."

Many Republicans insist the issue of abortion will be a far lower priority for Florida voters than concerns about undocumented immigration and anxiety about the economy.

They point to the wide margins the GOP won by in 2022, with DeSantis at the top of the ticket and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who supported a national 15-week ban, also winning by double digits. They predict that voters who are motivated by abortion rights would have voted for Democrats anyway, and that Democrats’ hopes about making inroads thanks to having abortion on the ballot aren’t based in reality.

“There is no empirical data suggesting abortion will be a driving force considering that Joe Biden’s failed agenda has continued harming everyday Floridians,” said Miami Commissioner Kevin Cabrera, who was Trump’s 2020 Florida director.

Alex Patton — a Florida-based consultant and pollster whose clients are Republicans, but who personally left the GOP to become a non-party affiliated voter — predicted the abortion issue would activate voters because they “feel like [they're] losing rights." He predicted the way national Democrats view Florida could change if polling showed some races, especially the Senate race, might be “within striking distance.”

“Then you might see the [Democratic National Committee] come in and spend some money on the issue as opposed to ignoring Florida,” he said. “We see what happens when the Democrats ignore Florida: they lose by 20 points.”

DeSantis didn’t sign the abortion ban to stick it to Trump or any other Republican in the 2024 elections. He was trying to polish his own conservative bona fides to run to the right of the former president, someone whose endorsement he desperately sought — and one that propelled him to a narrow win — when he first ran for governor in 2018.

He signed the six-week bill into law late at night surrounded by anti-abortion organizations, but did not invite the press or livestream the event, a significant contrast from the fanfare surrounding him signing the 15-week ban. He also initially struggled to talk about abortion during the early months of his presidential campaign.

DeSantis endorsed Trump in January when he dropped out of the presidential race, but then he quickly started picking apart Trump’s general-election vulnerabilities. The two men have been sniping at each other again in recent weeks, with Trump taking to Truth Social to try to recruit candidates to run in Florida. The move is widely perceived as Trump trying to exert dominance in the state.

Democrats are eager to make the 2024 election about abortion, given that every ballot measure to secure abortion access since the demise of Roe has passed. While these amendments haven’t necessarily resulted in more Democrats getting elected, the party got an encouraging sign late last month by flipping an Alabama state House seat from Republicans, after the Democratic candidate made abortion-rights her primary message. A central Florida Democratic candidate also flipped a state House seat in January after heavily focusing his campaign on abortion.

“I don't know how many more data points the GOP needs,” Patton said, “to understand that this is a dog issue for them.”