DeSantis faces political quagmire on abortion

DeSantis faces political quagmire on abortion

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) decision to sign a controversial six-week abortion ban into law has put him in the middle of rough political terrain that Democrats and some Republicans say could undermine his White House ambitions in 2024.

DeSantis signed off on the measure Thursday hours after it won final approval from his state’s Republican-dominated House. In doing so, DeSantis further endeared himself to anti-abortion activists and hardline conservatives, who are certain to play a pivotal role in determining the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominee.

But the move could also carry potentially damning political consequences for DeSantis among a broader swath of the electorate that has repeatedly rejected rigid new restrictions on abortion in the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that defined abortion rights in the U.S. for decades.

“I can’t understand what DeSantis’s political calculus is here,” said Jackson Peel, a spokesperson for Florida state House Democrats. “Once this ball started rolling, he couldn’t stop it. He either loses the primary or he loses the general over this issue.” 

While DeSantis touted the legislation as a win for the anti-abortion rights movement, there were also signs that the Florida governor is keenly aware of just how tricky abortion politics have become for the GOP. 

After praising the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade last summer, he largely went quiet on the issue, offering little beyond vague pledges to “expand pro-life protections.” And though he had said prior to the six-week ban’s passage that he would sign the legislation, he did so with little fanfare in a small ceremony Thursday night.

“We are proud to support life and family in the state of Florida,” he said in a statement. “I applaud the Legislature for passing the Heartbeat Protection Act that expands pro-life protections and provides additional resources for young mothers and families.”

The precarious nature of abortion politics was put into stark relief in last year’s midterm elections, when Democrats seized on protecting abortion rights as a central theme of their campaigns and hammered Republicans for pushing new restrictions following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling ending national abortion protections.

Following the midterms, former President Trump blamed the GOP’s lackluster performance squarely on the “abortion issue,” saying that it was “poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters.”

The new law in Florida creates new exceptions for rape and incest up to 15 weeks of pregnancy and still allows exemptions for abortions deemed necessary for the health of the mother up to 15 weeks. And when — or whether — the new law goes into effect depends on how the state Supreme Court rules in a challenge to an earlier 15-week abortion ban signed into law last year.

Still, DeSantis has “been backed into a very difficult corner,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, adding that, to an extent, DeSantis and every other GOP presidential hopeful is at the mercy of Republican-led state legislatures, who have sought to curb abortion access after the Dobbs decision.

“This may not hurt him in the primary, but clearly this puts Republicans in a position they wouldn’t want to be in in a general, and it makes it even harder to define Democrats as extremists on this issue,” Heye said.

“The Dobbs decision turned an issue in theory to an issue in practice,” he added. “So they’re having legislatures, whether in their states or other states, putting this issue out front.” 

As he moves toward a likely 2024 presidential campaign, the six-week ban could give DeSantis a leg up when it comes to courting anti-abortion activists and evangelicals, who remain deeply influential in Republican politics. Yet in a primary that many Republicans say should be about selecting the candidate most likely to win in 2024, the new abortion ban in Florida could open DeSantis up to new attacks.

“This isn’t a winning electoral messaging [for DeSantis],” one Republican pollster said. “It’s a given that you tack right to win the primary, but Republican voters are, I think, looking first and foremost at who can win; who can bring in those voters we lost last time around. And a lot of those voters have already said, ‘no, we don’t want more abortion bans.’”

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a moderate Republican who lost reelection in 2018, also warned that the new law could cost the GOP many of the suburban women voters that the party is hoping to win back after suffering defections to Democrats in recent years.

“You’re perhaps seeing Republicans overreach on a number of issues,” Curbelo said. “Especially with abortion, I’ve been hearing from a lot of suburban women here in Miami lately and they think Republicans are going too far.”

DeSantis is in a unique position among 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls. As a sitting governor, he’s in a position to actively push and sign legislation, while most other declared or prospective contenders — Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, for instance — sit on the sidelines. 

Yet it puts DeSantis squarely at the center of a debate that many other Republican presidential hopefuls have sought to navigate delicately. During a stop in Iowa this week, for example, Haley reiterated that she is “pro-life,” but that she doesn’t “judge anyone who is pro-choice,” noting the deeply personal nature of the issue.

“What I mean is this is a personal issue for women and for men,” she said. “It needs to be treated with the respect that it should.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who launched a presidential exploratory committee this week, told NBC News on Friday that he would “sign the most conservative, pro-life legislation that they can get through Congress,” though he declined to say what such legislation would actually look like. Trump, for his part, has sought to dodge the issue as much as possible.

Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said that DeSantis’s decision to sign the new abortion ban showed an effort to safeguard his political standing among conservatives at a time when many Republicans are rallying around Trump in the wake of the former president’s criminal indictment in New York.

While the legislation “doesn’t help [DeSantis] in a general,” Naughton said, the GOP is still more than a year away from picking its presidential nominee, leaving DeSantis plenty of time to let the fallout from the abortion ban cool down. 

“Politically, I think this is defensive. And it’s soon enough that maybe he can just get away from it for the rest of the campaign. I mean, he’s not going to run on it,” Naughton said. “For DeSantis, it just means he’s got to win on other issues. If he can win on the economy, he can survive this.”

“It’s a challenge,” Naughton said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to get stricter on the issue. Maybe he can sort of hold his breath and get through it.” 

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