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Florida Democrats see ray of hope for Senate race after abortion rulings

Florida Democrats are seizing on the state’s Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion ahead of November’s Senate race in hopes the issue will galvanize voters in the red-leaning state. 

On Monday, the state’s high court issued two rulings on access to abortion, one of which upheld the state’s 15-week abortion ban but another that gave the green light to a ballot measure that would protect access to abortion in the state if passed in November. The rulings follow recent victories for Democrats on abortion in other red states, including last week in Alabama.

Democrats in Florida say the decision will boost former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel Powell in what is expected to be a challenging bid to oust incumbent Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) in a state that no Democrat has won statewide since 2018.  

“It makes me more committed than ever to make sure that we not only pass the ballot amendment…but to make sure that I win,” Mucarsel Powell said in an interview with The Hill hours after the ruling on Monday.  

On Tuesday, Mucarsel Powell’s campaign released a memo calling the ruling “a gamechanger” in the Senate race.  

“The rulings ensure that abortion rights will be front and center on the minds of Floridians as they head to the polls this November, and Rick Scott’s support for both a national abortion ban and Florida’s cruel and extreme abortion ban are an existential threat to his reelection bid,” the memo read.  

Scott responded to the ruling by vowing to protect IVF and calling Mucarsel Powell extreme on abortion.  

“Floridians also agree that there should be some reasonable limits placed on abortion,” Scott said in a statement. “Sadly, my opponent opposes ANY limits on abortion, allowing it even after a baby can feel pain and suck their thumb, even up to the baby’s due date,” he continued. “She is ok with a baby’s skull being crushed at 9 months and ok with a newborn baby being put in the corner crying and left to die. That’s what extremism looks like.” 

The conservative-majority Florida Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the right to privacy doesn’t extend to abortion and affirmed the state’s 15-week ban on the procedure, cementing the Sunshine State’s status as one of 20 states where abortion access is at least severely restricted, according to a tracker from Planned Parenthood.  

That move opened the door to an even more restrictive six-week ban, signed last year by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), to go into effect May 1 — a development that has dismayed advocates in the state.  

“So many of our patients already struggled to access an abortion under a 15-week ban. Now, the lives of even more Floridians will be in danger as basic health care is pushed further out of reach,” said Kelly Flynn, president and CEO of A Woman’s Choice of Jacksonville, in a statement.  

But because of a separate ruling approving a voter initiative in the state, Floridians will get the chance in November to vote on a ballot measure that would enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution and protect against the current restrictions.  

“This November we will have the opportunity to fight back against this devastating ruling at the ballot box by voting to enshrine the right to abortion in the Florida state Constitution,” Flynn said.  

Anti-abortion advocates push back on the notion, arguing that it it won’t be an easy feat. 

“Just like in 2022, the Democrats are lying when they say they will turn Florida blue by pushing abortion – they’re omitting key data and realities of ballots in other states. In Florida, it takes 60 percent of voters to rewrite the constitution, a feat not achieved in Ohio or Michigan,” said Kelsey Pritchard,  state affairs communications director at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

“Today, Republicans must expose how extreme this new pro-abortion amendment is and communicate with compassion, contrasting their position with the deeply unpopular Leftist agenda of no-limits abortion, when babies can feel the pain of the abortion, even in the second and third trimesters.”

A poll from the University of North Florida released last year found that over 60 percent of Florida voters say they would support the amendment that enshrines abortion rights into the state’s constitution. The measure would need a 60-percent approval to pass.  

Democrats and abortion rights activists in several states are pushing similar measures forward in the hopes of stoking a sense of urgency around abortion and energizing Democrats to cast their ballots in an election already rife with worries about turnout.  

In states with competitive House or Senate contests, like New York and Montana, strategists have pointed to abortion-related ballot initiative efforts as vehicles to boost pro-choice, Democratic candidates down ballot — even where abortion is still largely legal.

Democrats say Scott’s name on the same ballot as the abortion measure, coupled with the higher turnout seen during a presidential year, gives them a prime opportunity for a competitive race.  

“It gives Democrats an offense strategy, so that gives Congresswoman Mucarsel Powell an advantage,” said Florida-based Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert. “It puts Republicans on defense, so Rick Scott is going to depend on, likely, his personal wealth to overcome that defense that they’re going to be put in.”

The abortion-related ballot measure, along with another measure that would legalize recreational marijuana, will bring more attention to the 2024 race in the state and draw in resources, Ulvert said.

Just after the state court made its ruling on Monday, the Biden campaign announced it’s targeting Florida for a flip in the fall.  

“What the Supreme Court did, in many ways, is put on the voters very clearly that the full future of reproductive rights in Florida rests on their voting this election cycle,” Ulvert said. 

It could also serve to put former President Trump on the defensive, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida, since the Biden campaign could “force Trump to defend a state that he wouldn’t otherwise have to.” 

McDonald agreed that the ballot measures could give turnout a slight boost, but argued their bigger benefit is elevating the urgency and importance of abortion questions for voters — and compelling both Senate hopefuls to lean into the contentious issue. 

Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said Democrats plan to run on the issue, accusing Scott and Trump of wanting to pass a nationwide abortion ban if elected with a Republican majority.  

“Those two issues in the voters’ mind is going to be the job of the campaign to make sure that the link is very clear,” Fried said.  

But Republicans say they are not as concerned about the prospect of the measure hindering their chances at the Senate level.  

“These two ballot amendments will certainly boost turnout in Florida and likely to the benefit of Democrats, but Florida does have a history of voting for left-leaning ballot measures and right leaning candidates,” said Ford O’Connell, a Florida GOP strategist.  

In 2020, Trump won Florida at the same time the $15 Minimum Wage Initiative passed.  

Republicans also point to Scott’s name ID in the state from when he was governor.

“Republicans still have an 800,000-voter advantage in Florida and also, our independents tend to lean Republican,” O’Connell said. “And Rick Scott has time and time again shown himself to be a candidate who dots his i’s and crosses his t’s when it comes to voter turnout.”  

Democrats, on the other hand, point to Scott’s narrow margins of victory in the state and the fact that he will be running for the first time during a presidential year, which tends to see higher turnout.

“Florida is in play and this is our opportunity to take out Rick Scott,” Fried said.  

Republicans say that linking the candidates with the ballot measures may not be as black and white.  

“It’s possible that the US Senate race in Florida will be less about the Republican vs. the Democratic candidate, and will be more about a referendum on a six-week abortion ban,” said Florida-based Republican strategist Justin Sayfie. 

Both the ballot measure and the six-week ban will drive turnout and should benefit Democrats, but Scott may well try to capitalize on the same to energize voters on the other side of the issue.  

The incumbent Republican also has the benefit of having won statewide three times — though the amendment effort is “the X factor” that makes the Senate race “a new ballgame,” Sayfie said.  

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