Abortion and the Florida Fakeout


It seemed, for a while there, that 2024 was going to be The Presidential Election Year Without Much Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, the brash Republican who had made his conservative transformation of the Sunshine State the blueprint for his presidential run, had been flattened in the primary by former President Donald Trump. Florida’s Democrats were still reeling from their crushing statewide losses in 2022.

Florida, which was once the ultimate battleground state but has tilted redder in recent years, seemed like it would basically sit this election out, like a retiree with a cocktail watching pickleball from the sidelines.

Not so, President Biden’s campaign said this week. Because abortion.

On Monday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. At the same time, it also ruled that a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee the right to abortion “before viability,” usually around 24 weeks, could go on the November ballot.

Hours later, the Biden campaign blasted out a splashy announcement: It sees an “opening” in Florida and intends to seize it, releasing an ad on abortion rights the next morning.

“President Biden is in a stronger position to win Florida this cycle than he was in 2020,” Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, wrote in a memo released to the media.

Around the country, abortion-rights activists have run up big victories in red states like Kansas and Ohio when abortion rights landed directly on the ballot, and Democratic candidates have sought to benefit. But there is considerable skepticism in the state that the Biden campaign plans to seriously contest Florida — or even that it should.

“Unfortunately for Democrats, Florida is now Mecca for MAGA,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic strategist in Florida who worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, which won Florida both times. “The state is now a magnet for Republicans across the country who want to live in a place they feel is sanctuary and safeguard — it’s causing a demographic revolution here.”

Florida’s abortion referendum could amount to an adrenaline shot for the state’s downtrodden Democrats. As my colleague Patricia Mazzei wrote this week, Florida Democrats now see a glimmer of hope in down-ballot races like the Senate contest there. (A separate referendum on legalizing marijuana might also help.)

But there are some signs that Biden’s nod toward Florida is a bit of a head fake, meant to lure Trump’s campaign into spending some of its finite resources in the state.

While Biden’s abortion ad will appear online in the state, the campaign is not actually running it on television there, for example. And the campaign has not offered any details about how much of the $30 million it has put toward spring TV advertising is going into the state’s expensive media markets. (Campaign officials declined to comment; Chavez Rodriguez’s memo said the campaign was “investing in Florida as a path to victory.”)

The Biden campaign is using the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling to amplify its abortion-rights message in more winnable states, however. The new abortion ad, the campaign noted, will appear during baseball games featuring teams in Milwaukee, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — not mentioning the two teams that play in Florida.

The emphasis is on the core battleground states that offer a plausible path to 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

“The fastest way to 270 for us has been through the upper-Midwestern states and Pennsylvania,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic political operative who worked on both Obama campaigns and now runs a super PAC backing Biden, Unite the Country. “We win Nevada again, and we win those three states, it doesn’t matter what happens anywhere else.”

The campaign’s press call about the Florida news featured several Democrats from non-Florida battleground states, including Representative Nikema Williams of Georgia, a state Biden narrowly won in 2020, and Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a state Biden lost by a narrow margin.

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the only people standing between a national abortion ban and extending the dystopian reality that North Carolinians face across the entire country,” Cooper said.

Abortion-rights activists may also not welcome a big Biden-branded abortion-rights push in Florida. The referendum needs 60 percent of the vote to pass — which means it will need the support of Republicans as well as independent voters.

There has been no coordination between the Biden campaign and Floridians Protecting Freedom, the Florida group that organized it, and there won’t be, said Lauren Brenzel, the group’s campaign director.

“It’s just not who we’re talking to about this initiative,” Brenzel said. “We’re really focused on running a campaign that is focused on patients and doctors.”

“It’s out of step to think that this is a partisan issue,” she added.

Representative Maxwell Frost, an Orlando Democrat, cited numerous trips to the state by administration officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, as evidence of the Biden’s team’s commitment to Florida, and expressed confidence that the referendum could lift the campaign there if Democrats play their cards right.

“It’s going to bring out new people,” he said. “We’ve still got to talk with those people.”

But even Democrats who think the state is probably a lost cause for them see an upside to Biden competing in Florida — if only as a diversion.

In 2020, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg announced plans to spend $100 million to help Biden in the state, only to have him lose by 3.3 percentage points. But that money may have forced Trump and his allies to ramp up their spending in Florida — which might have cost him a key edge in other close states.

“That Bloomberg spend really opened up the map for us,” Schale said. “It created some big spending disparities.”

Simon Rosenberg was right about the congressional elections of 2022. All the conventional wisdom — the polls, the punditry, the fretting by fellow Democrats — revolved around the expectation of a big red wave and a Democratic wipeout.

He disagreed. Democrats would surprise everyone, he said again and again: There would be no red wave. He was correct, of course, as he is quick to remind anyone listening.

These days, Rosenberg is again pushing back against the polls and punditry and the Democratic doom and gloom. This time, he is predicting that President Biden will defeat Donald Trump in November.

I talked to Rosenberg, a strategist and consultant, about what it feels like to be an outlier in his own party, and why he sleeps so well at night while so many of his fellow Democrats are plotting their moves to Paris after November.

I understand your arguments about 2022, and you were certainly proved right. But this seems like a different time for Democrats, or certainly for Biden.

Here we are almost two years later, and a lot of the same kinds of things are still happening — and Trump is a far weaker candidate in this election than he was in 2016. He’s more dangerous. He’s more extreme. His performance on the stump is far more erratic and disturbing. I’m just giving you my rap here.

How critical to your case — to your rap — is the Supreme Court decision on abortion rights?

I think the election changed a lot with Dobbs, and it hasn’t really changed very much since. There’s one party that just keeps winning all over the country, and every type of election going back now two years — the same basic dynamic, which is, we keep winning, they keep struggling. Why would it be different in November? My view is that it won’t be, because there’s a structural thing happening underneath all of this, which is that Dobbs broke the Republican Party and that a big chunk of the Republican Party has become loosened from MAGA. It’s costing them in elections and costing them a lot of donors — and money.

Adam Nagourney

Read the full interview here.

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