Abortion threatens GOP’s chances in Florida statehouse races

April 27, 2024

Abortion politics is threatening to roil Florida Republicans’ chances in competitive state Legislature races amid widespread voter backlash. 

The Florida Supreme Court upheld a 15-week limit on abortion earlier this month, paving the way for a six-week ban passed by the state Legislature last year to soon go into effect. 

Now, a handful of vulnerable Republican state lawmakers who supported the six-week restrictions could be imperiled in November as anger over the ban grows.

“Given how unpopular this new policy is and the fact that there’s a constitutional amendment question regarding abortion on the ballot, I do think that there’s some risk for down-ballot Republicans,” former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) told The Hill.  

Florida has become a focal point in the battle over abortion access as a number of states have seen abortion access curtailed following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.  

The state Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the contested 15-week abortion restriction could proceed, arguing that a privacy clause within the state Constitution does not pertain to abortion.  

The state Legislature last year passed a six-week limit on the medical procedure, though it was not enforced as the litigation around the 15-week ban wound its way through the courts. 

The six-week ban will officially become enacted May 1, rapidly changing the landscape of abortion access in the Sunshine State. At the same time, abortion-rights advocates eked out a win this month when the Florida Supreme Court said a ballot measure seeking to enshrine abortion protections into the state Constitution could go before voters this fall. 

Among the members who voted for the six-week ban who live in swing districts are GOP state Reps. Rachel Saunders Plakon in Seminole County; Susan Plasencia, who represents parts of Orange and Seminole counties; David Smith in Seminole County; and Carolina Amesty, who represents portions of Orange and Osceola counties. Not all of them currently have declared Democratic challengers.  

Nonetheless, Democrats are confident some of these GOP state legislators will be vulnerable for voting on the six-week ban. If that’s the case, it would show how abortion politics is roiling redder states at a more local level.  

“I do think for all these Republicans that voted essentially with [Gov. Ron] DeSantis in an attempt to boost his ambitions for the White House — they haven’t only endangered women and abortion seekers, but they’ve also endangered their political careers, and it will be made very clear on the campaign trail how out of touch they are, even with their own base,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D), who previously worked at Planned Parenthood. 

Yet some experts like Michael Binder, faculty director of the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Laboratory, are skeptical that vulnerable GOP state lawmakers could be in further trouble over their vote on the six-week abortion ban alone. 

Binder noted “there is a ballot measure that is out there that expands and enshrines abortion rights into the state constitution, and that is certainly something where you could see some folks maybe voting for a Republican but also voting ‘yes.’” 

“It could also maybe motivate a few more people to come out that might otherwise not come out,” he added. “Not a lot, but a few.” 

Some Republicans also say they are skeptical, noting factors like candidate quality and other top issues among voters.  

“Overall, having the six-week abortion ban, reproductive rights amendment on the ballot is a net plus in terms of Democratic voter turnout,” said Justin Sayfie, a Florida-based Republican strategist. “But the challenge for the Democratic Party in Florida in these state House and state Senate races is putting up viable candidates.”  

Florida Democrats say they are up for that challenge, announcing a recruitment effort earlier this month to bring in candidates for every state and federal legislative office.  

But Republicans say the issue also stems from the two candidates who will be at the top of the ballot in Florida this cycle: President Biden and former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), a Senate candidate.

“They’ve got two weak candidates [on the statewide ballot]. They need something else to energize their voters,” Sayfie said.  

Biden and Mucarsel-Powell have both zeroed in on abortion as a key campaign issue in the state. Earlier this week, the president made a campaign stop in Tampa, taking the opportunity to slam Florida’s six-week abortion ban, which is slated to go into effect next week. Meanwhile, Vice President Harris is slated to deliver remarks in Jacksonville the day the ban takes effect.  

“It’s not so much that we have to make it an issue, that people have already made this an issue,” said Florida state House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell (D). “Voters have shown us that this is the formula to connect with them, to be able to have the credibility to ask for their vote, you have to be able to say that you authentically say that you care about the issues that they care about.” 

Polling shows the issue is certainly on voters’ minds.  

An Emerson College polling survey released earlier this month found that 42 percent of Florida voters said they plan to vote in November in favor of the amendment to enshrine abortion rights into the state’s constitution, while 32 percent said they were not sure. Twenty-five percent said they would vote against the measure.  

A separate USA Today/Ipsos poll from earlier this month found that 57 percent of voters said they would vote to expand abortion access through the ballot measure.

Still, Republicans say other issues will be at play in November, particularly for swing voters.  

“That’s the danger for Democrats, they talk so much about abortion and reproductive rights that voters think, ‘Gosh, they don’t care about these other issues that I care about,’” Sayfie said.