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DeSantis Pivots Right on Abortion, Laying Groundwork for Presidential Primary

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stayed quiet about abortion rights during reelection, but now he’s pushing an abortion ban.

An abortion rights activist holds a sign at a protest in support of abortion access on July 13, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In early February, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis indicated that he wanted the GOP-controlled state legislature to send him legislation banning abortions in the state after six weeks of pregnancy. “We’re for pro-life. I urge the legislature to work, produce good stuff, and we will sign,” DeSantis told a news conference ostensibly gathered to discuss budget proposals for the upcoming fiscal year.

DeSantis’s shift rightward on abortion comes as GOP legislatures in several states that have relatively permissive abortion laws on the books seek to ramp up restrictions on reproductive health. In North Carolina, Nebraska and Florida, anti-abortion activists are pushing for bans after six weeks of pregnancy — which would bring the states into line with the hardline anti-abortion laws of GOP-led states in the rest of the South, Midwest and mountain West.

What makes the move in Florida particularly insidious is that the state has long been viewed as a southern outlier on abortion. Polling shows widespread, cross-party support for keeping abortion legal.

In 2014, a major study of Floridians’ attitudes on abortion, conducted by Pew Research, estimated that 56 percent wanted abortion kept legal in all or most circumstances. Even among evangelical Protestants in the state, support for abortion was at 36 percent; among Catholics it stood at 50 percent; and among mainline Protestants, it was 67 percent.

Since then, support for abortion amongst Floridians has increased. Last year, just before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, two-thirds of Floridians, and more than 50 percent of Republican voters in the state, told pollsters from Florida Atlantic University that they wanted abortion legal in most or all cases; and only 12 percent of voters supported a complete ban on the procedure.

For years, right-wing legislators in Florida have attempted to chip away at the state’s abortion protections, and for years, advocates successfully pushed back, using the state constitution’s explicitly codified right to privacy as a legal spear-tip to defend abortion access.

In 2022, however, before the overturning of Roe, the Florida legislature passed HB 5, banning abortions after 15 weeks. DeSantis promptly signed it into law and, while a lower court issued an injunction against its implementation, the stay was short-lived — in July, the state appealed the injunction, which resulted in it being automatically lifted while the case slowly wound its way through the courts. Since then, as many news outlets have reported, those in need of abortions after 15 weeks have been unable to get the necessary medical procedures in the state of Florida.

Now, however, things could get even worse in the Sunshine State. Despite having stayed largely silent on abortion during the 2022 elections — a strategy that paid dividends for DeSantis and likely contributed to his 19 percent win over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist — the Florida governor now seems to have made a political calculation that, despite the lack of popular support for far right anti-abortion policies, pushing for ever more restrictions will play well among the GOP base come the 2024 presidential primaries and will give him time, after the primary process, to effect some sort of pivot back to a “middle ground.”

For years, right-wing legislators in Florida have attempted to chip away at the state’s abortion protections, and for years, advocates successfully pushed back.

Whether he’ll be able to execute that pivot is, however, another matter entirely. A recent poll found that there isn’t a single state in the country in which a majority of residents favor a total ban on abortions. And, as the November 2022 elections showed, abortion played a huge role in how people voted, helping to stymie GOP hopes of a red wave.

DeSantis hasn’t officially launched his 2024 presidential campaign, but all the signs indicate that he soon will. In a hypothetical head-to-head race, he ranks ahead of Donald Trump among likely GOP voters in some polls — though in others, he still significantly trails the ex-president. No other GOP hopeful yet comes close to being a credible contender, though it’s a truism that a lot can happen in a year of politics, and the first primaries aren’t until early 2024. Given the escalating legal woes that candidate Trump faces, it’s likely that the anti-Trump vote will, over the coming months, start to coalesce around DeSantis. It’s also likely that the party bigwigs and megadonors will go all out this year to stop a damaged Trump from once again capturing the nomination — looking for a single candidate they can back who seems better able to produce an electoral majority. If DeSantis times his entry into the race strategically, holding off on an official announcement as the media speculation around his potential candidacy intensifies, he’ll be the odds-on favorite to take on Trump during the home stretch into the primaries.

DeSantis has made a concerted push over the past couple of years to outflank Trump on the right. His initial responses to COVID were fairly pragmatic, but he rapidly moved into the anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown, anti-masking, anti-test mandate camp. He came into office pledging to work with Democrats on signature policies, including protecting the environment, but now he’s marching lock-step with the GOP in its opposition to clean energy policies and electric vehicles, dismissing carbon reduction policies as “left-wing stuff.” He has shifted ever-rightward in his education policy, going to rhetorical war against critical race theory and African American studies, pushing for laws to limit the rights of transgender students and signing a “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law that limits discussions around sexuality in Florida’s classrooms.

Abortion is just the latest issue to come under DeSantis’s opportunistic purview.

While a strong majority of Floridians oppose restricting abortion, 2022 showed it wasn’t a make-or-break issue for them when choosing their governor — perhaps because, erroneously as it turned out, many Floridians assumed their abortion laws would remain in place even after a second DeSantis victory. Secure in his office, DeSantis can now turn his attention to his presidential ambitions. And, in the primary process to come, he will have to prove his anti-abortion bona fides. Anti-abortion groups, which play an outsized role in the GOP primaries, have made clear they won’t throw their support behind any candidate who doesn’t advocate national abortion restrictions and/or bans. One presidential hopeful after the next has lined up to flaunt their promotion of evermore extreme anti-abortion measures and penalties. In January, the Republican National Committee directed GOP political leaders to enact the “strongest” possible restrictions on abortion in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

Having won reelection by a landslide, and having successfully avoided talking specifics on abortion restrictions through his reelection campaign, DeSantis is now free to craft policies that will dovetail with the views of the most extreme section of the GOP base.

Signing legislation banning almost all abortions in the state of Florida may well help him become either a king or a kingmaker within his party, but a new question will then arise: If DeSantis all but bans abortion in Florida, and then uses that ban as rocket fuel accelerating his rise to national prominence, how will independent voters react during next year’s presidential campaign to the prospect of an anti-choice zealot taking possession of the keys to the White House in a post-Roe U.S.?