Saturday, July 13, 2024

Republican party confusion on abortion could work against it

It’s one thing for a probable Republican presidential candidate to talk vaguely about how to expand “pro-life protections.” It would be quite another for an actual Republican governor to sign one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. Ron DeSantis may be about to discover the difference—and what that means for his political fortunes.

DeSantis signed Florida’s 15-week abortion ban last year, without exception for rape or incest. And, in a sign that there’s no longer any middle ground in American abortion politics, the state legislature is not stopping there. The Senate last week passed a six-week ban, and the House is expected to pass the measure this week. DeSantis, who heralded the state’s post-Roe ban, is more muted in his support of the shorter ban but has signalled he’ll sign it.

The new law would allow abortion up to 15 weeks to save a woman’s life as well as for rape or incest. But the requirements for proof are extremely burdensome. Not to mention that, at six weeks, most women don’t even know they are pregnant. And there is a big asterisk here: The conservative Florida Supreme Court needs to rule on the 15-week ban before the six-week ban can go into effect.

The situation creates enormous uncertainty that will play out over years, not months, and not just in Florida, but throughout the South. Florida’s current law is moderate compared to those of its neighbours, and the state has become a refuge for women from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, which have so-called heartbeat laws on the books.

By signing the six-week ban, DeSantis can boost his conservative bona fides and distinguish himself from his main rival for the Republican presidential nomination, who nominated three conservative Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe. But outside the conservative bubble, voters have repeatedly shown that they want the right to abortion protected.

The most recent example came last week in Wisconsin, where the liberal candidate for the state Supreme Court made abortion the centerpiece of her campaign—specifically the court’s upcoming decision about an 1849 abortion ban reinstated last year. The result shows that American voters can be mobilized when there is a specific threat to reproductive rights, as opposed to generic fears about them.

Florida is not just a state where abortion is under assault—it is also one that allows for citizen-led ballot initiatives. State and national groups are already exploring the possibility of a lengthy and expensive campaign to get abortion on the ballot in 2024. “We are losing complete access to legal abortion in Florida,” Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani told me. “We don’t have a choice but to explore every option.”

Ballot initiatives in Florida need 60% support to pass. A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 64% of Florida residents say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The national survey also shows that attitudes toward the issue haven’t shifted over the last year. When the 15-week ban was passed by Florida’s House, a University of North Florida poll found that 60% of Florida voters opposed the measure. Last month, 75% of voters—and 61% of Republicans—opposed a complete ban at six weeks.

If the past is prologue, Republicans’ push for more abortion curbs could bring about greater protection for abortion rights. So DeSantis may be overplaying his hand—not just in terms of policy, but politically.

Why? Because Republicans want an electable candidate, says Sarah Longwell, a Never-Trump Republican strategist who founded the Republican Accountability Project. And it is difficult to see DeSantis as electable without the support of suburban women, who make up a quarter of the electorate and fled then-President Donald Trump in 2020 (Joe Biden won 59% of their support).

In Longwell’s focus groups, she’s found that when Republicans want to move on from Trump, it’s not because of criminal activity or his efforts to subvert democracy. It’s because “they just don’t think Trump can win.” In the seven focus groups she’s conducted with two-time Trump voters over the past year, participants have been breaking for DeSantis. Last week, however, for the first time, everyone went for Trump —even echoing the “swampy” criticism that the former president has made of the current governor.

Obviously, a former president facing criminal charges may not be able to sustain a tight grip on his party. But DeSantis may find it difficult as well—especially if his extreme position on abortion rights alienates so many American voters that even hard-core Republicans begin to see him as unelectable.

Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.


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