With Abortion Ballot Question, a ‘Path to Relevance’ for Democrats in Florida?


Suddenly, November got a lot more interesting in Florida.

The nation’s third-largest state, once the biggest battleground in presidential politics, has become less important as its election results have trended repeatedly toward the political right. Few consider it a true swing state anymore.

But three rulings from the Florida Supreme Court on abortion and marijuana, released on Monday, may inject new life into Democratic campaigns before the general election on Nov. 6.

The court, which leans conservative, upheld a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, allowing an even more restrictive six-week ban to soon take effect. However, the court also allowed a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would guarantee access to abortion “before viability,” or at about 24 weeks.

In a third decision, the court gave the go-ahead to a separate ballot measure that would legalize recreational marijuana.

Taken together, Democrats see the rulings as an opening to drive their voters — and perhaps new voters likely to support their candidates — to the polls.

“It has the potential to pull out more voters, and those voters are more likely to be with us than with the other guys,” said Christina Reynolds, senior vice president of communications for Emily’s List, which supports and funds Democratic women running for office. “It draws some focus to Florida that might otherwise not be there, because we’ve had our hearts broken before.”

No one is suggesting that two constitutional amendments are enough to swing the presidential race in Florida against former President Donald J. Trump, a Palm Beach resident who won the state in 2016 and 2020. Though President Biden has traveled to Florida for fund-raisers, he is not expected to spend much time campaigning — or paying for expensive television advertising — in the state.

Mr. Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, said in a memo after the rulings were released that the president had an “opening” in Florida, though it “is not an easy state to win.”

In the past, Floridians have elected Republicans while also approving ballot proposals promoted by liberal-leaning groups, including ones that set a $15 hourly minimum wage, restored felons’ voting rights and legalized medical marijuana.

And Florida elections tend to be closer in presidential years than in midterm years. Moving a few thousand votes here and there could affect races down the ballot. On Monday, Democrats rushed to point out that Senator Rick Scott, a Republican running for re-election, said that he would have signed the six-week ban.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, enacted the 15-week ban in 2022. Last year, as he prepared to run for president in more religious states like Iowa, he signed the six-week ban, even though polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of Floridians want most abortions to be legal. Mr. Trump criticized Mr. DeSantis for supporting the six-week ban, calling it “a terrible thing.”

Several political observers noted that Mr. DeSantis’s party might have had an easier time rallying voters against the abortion ballot measure if Republicans had stuck with the 15-week ban.

“Abortion is to Republicans what immigration is to Democrats: If you’re talking about it, it’s a complication, it’s a problem, it’s an obstacle,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Miami. “It just gives Democrats a path to relevance in the state again, where they’ve been just kind of completely bankrupt for some years now.”

Florida Democrats have lost significant ground in voter registration to Republicans, struggled to raise money and failed to organize a political apparatus that can compete with the perennially well-funded Republican machine. In 2022, Mr. DeSantis flipped Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous county, which had previously been part of Democrats’ liberal stronghold in southeast Florida.

Anna Hochkammer, the executive director of the Florida Women’s Freedom Coalition, said that she expected the effect of the abortion ballot measure to be “significant” for other races. Polling conducted last month for her group and Floridians Protecting Freedom, which includes Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, showed 73 percent support for the constitutional amendment, she said. It needs more than 60 percent to pass.

“Supporters tend to be quite firm in their support, while opponents tend to be quite squishy,” Ms. Hochkammer said. “This polls well across all demographics. It’s motivating to young people and women, too. No one can deny that it will shape the voter universe.”

State Representative Paul Renner, a Republican who is the speaker of the Florida House, told reporters on Monday that legislative leaders would help try to defeat the abortion ballot measure. Anti-abortion groups have vowed to wage a vigorous campaign.

“There will be an organized effort, I can say that definitively,” Mr. Renner said. “The effort really will be focused on those in the middle in Florida.”

He and other Republican lawmakers portrayed the six-week abortion ban as a common-sense compromise that allows for exceptions when the mother’s health is at stake. The 15-week ban does not have exceptions for rape or incest, though the six-week ban does.

Mr. Renner dismissed a suggestion that the abortion and marijuana ballot questions would make the general election more competitive. “No,” he said. “I think every election is important and consequential.”

“With full education and with full understanding of what these amendments do,” he added, “they’ll both be voted down.”

But members of the board of the RBG Fund, a Tallahassee organization that provides financial assistance to people who travel to Florida to receive an abortion because the rules in their home states are more restrictive, said that they felt the political ground shift.

“Everybody who was biting their nails about this decision is jubilant right now,” said Karen Woodall, 66. “This is going to inspire people.”

Valerie Crowder contributed reporting from Tallahassee, Fla.

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