Florida, Arizona set for separate paths on abortion fight

April 16, 2024

Florida and Arizona are set to become case studies on how much the issue of abortion can help Democratic candidates.  

Florida advocates are trying to avoid tying their ballot measure to politics out of fear it will sink their effort. 

But backers of Arizona’s amendment, which hasn’t yet been officially certified, are taking the opposite tack. 

When Florida’s Supreme Court ruled earlier this month there was no constitutional right to an abortion, but then separately allowed an abortion amendment onto the ballot in November, Democrats in the state and in Washington, D.C., saw an opportunity. 

The state has become a bastion of conservative politics in recent years, but two seemingly dueling abortion rulings suddenly put it on President Biden’s radar. 

Hours after the Supreme Court’s decisions, the Biden campaign issued a memo calling Florida “winnable.” The next day, the campaign launched a series of ads highlighting former President Trump bragging about his role in overturning Roe v. Wade. 

Florida Democrats also want to use abortion to boost former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) in what is expected to be an uphill battle to oust incumbent Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). Powell’s campaign said the rulings are a “gamechanger.” 

But ballot measures in Florida need to be approved by 60 percent of voters to pass, and there are almost 900,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats.  

Sponsors of the abortion ballot initiative would rather keep the focus on the issues. Floridians Protecting Freedom, the coalition that leads the campaign, is letting locals speak for themselves. 

“The reality is that this is truly a nonpartisan issue,” said Lauren Brenzel, campaign director for the Yes on 4 initiative.  

The group has focused its message on patients and providers and the impact the upcoming six-week abortion ban will have on the health care of women in the state. That same message will continue to be hammered home for the next six months until voters go to the polls in November. 

“I think that when we’re talking about a six-week abortion ban about to be enacted in May, that should be the center of the story, not on what the voter turnout is going to look like for any one political party,” Brenzel said. “For us, it’s never been about a certain electorate turning out, it’s about giving Floridians the chance to have their voice heard outside of politicians.” 

The stakes in Florida are incredibly high for the initiative’s supporters, as the looming six-week abortion ban is likely to reverberate across the entire country. 

There were 84,000 abortions performed in Florida last year, including thousands for women who needed to travel from out of state, according to state data. Come May 1, almost all of those women will need to find somewhere else to go. 

But Democrats also see how high the political stakes are, which is why they are actively trying to harness outrage over the rulings and turn it into Democratic votes.  

Florida has become notably more Republican in recent elections, but two ballot measures — abortion and marijuana — “are going to drive a lot of people that may be nontraditional voters to vote, and that … makes Florida particularly unpredictable this time around,” said Kevin Wagner, a political science professor and associate dean at Florida Atlantic University. 

State Democratic lawmakers acknowledge a balancing act is needed between supporting the amendment and other candidates on the ballot. 

State Rep. Anna V. Eskamani (D) said in a recent call with reporters that 35 percent of people who signed petitions in support of the measure were Republicans. 

And while Democrats continue to link the potential election of Trump and congressional Republicans to nationwide abortion bans, Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried emphasized that the party isn’t explicitly trying to tie itself to the ballot measure.  

“Obviously there’s a separate campaign that is going on, and that is the Amendment 4,” Fried said. “The coalition is broad, and that is where we are going to come into play is to make sure that we’re providing information, that we’re providing different types of access points for people to get that information. But it is two separate campaigns,” she said. 

Across the country in Arizona, supporters of a ballot initiative to protect abortion are gladly leaning into national political attention. 

The state Supreme Court dropped a political bombshell last week when it said it would reinstate a near-total abortion ban written in 1864. The ruling left Arizonans with a choice: the Civil War-era ban or a ballot measure that would make abortion protected to the point of conception. 

The measure’s backers said they have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, but they won’t be certified until later this summer. 

Cheryl Bruce, campaign manager for the Arizonans for Abortion Access campaign, said bipartisan outrage over the ruling has been a positive sign, and she isn’t worried about Democrats alienating Republicans by politicizing the ballot measure.  

“I think it’s always helpful to have support and to have people amplify your message,” Bruce said. “We believe that abortion access is a fundamental right and that it deserves to be protected. And so, you know, we are always happy to see when any politicians from any piece of the political lens are supportive of this issue, but at the end of the day, I think … politicians and judges cannot be trusted with this decision.” 

Unlike Florida, however, the path to a ballot measure is more straightforward in Arizona. It only needs a simple majority of voters to approve it, and there is no Supreme Court review. 

Arizona is a key swing state that’s been trending Democratic in recent years, and there’s no significant party voter registration advantage like in Florida. While Republicans hold a majority in the Legislature, the governor, attorney general and secretary of state are Democrats. 

Samara Klar, a professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy, said when abortion is on the ballot, it drives supporters to vote more than opponents. And across the state there’s been broad opposition to the 1864 law. 

“We’re not really seeing a lot of polarization on the issue of abortion,” Klar said. “Two-thirds of Arizona voters oppose abortion bans of any time. Obviously, it’s a winning issue for the Democrats in a lot of ways. And the idea that it could be on the ballot in November is probably going to be a benefit for Democratic candidates.”