Floridians woke up Friday morning to discover Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed into law a six-week abortion ban overnight, meeting behind closed doors with a select group of invited guests to give final approval to a bill that had just passed the state legislature earlier in the day.
In backing a six-week ban, DeSantis fulfilled a campaign pledge to block abortion after the detection of a heartbeat – just before he is expected to launch his 2024 presidential bid. But as he inches toward a national campaign, DeSantis, who rarely sidesteps cultural clashes, has also become oddly muted on abortion since the fall of Roe v. Wade and has avoided laying out a federal platform before jumping into the race.
Speaking Friday morning to an overwhelmingly pro-life audience at Liberty University, a deeply conservative Baptist college in Virginia, DeSantis didn’t mention the bill he had signed the night before.
The late-night private signing also stood in stark contrast to the celebratory event exactly a year prior, when DeSantis, surrounded by women and children and in front of hundreds of onlookers, enacted a 15-week abortion ban at a Orlando-area megachurch as news cameras captured the scene.
The six-week ban “is going to cause a lot of problems for him,” said Amy Tarkanian, the former chairwoman of the Republican Party in Nevada, where voters have cemented abortion protections in the state constitution. “And I’m pro-life, but I can see the writing on the wall.”
The US Supreme Court decision last June that ended a federal right to abortion access has throttled the national political landscape, energizing Democrats and leaving Republicans grasping for a message that can blunt the fallout. The latest harbinger of trouble for the GOP came last week from Wisconsin, a presidential swing state where liberals took control of the state Supreme Court in an election fought over the future of abortion access.
But with DeSantis on the verge of entering the GOP presidential primary – for which abortion is often a litmus test for candidates – Republican state lawmakers delivered their leader a political victory, flexing their super majorities in both Florida chambers to swiftly push through the new restrictions. The law will take effect if the state Supreme Court overturns its past precedent protecting abortion access, which is widely expected. When that happens, Florida, once a sanctuary for Southern women whose states had made it difficult to legally end a pregnancy, will become one of the hardest states in the country to obtain an abortion.
In an early sign of how Democrats intend to paint DeSantis, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement called Florida’s bill “extreme and dangerous” and said it “is out of step with the views of the vast majority of the people of Florida and of all the United States.”
A Republican fundraiser close to the governor’s political operation told CNN that the six-week ban would play “great in primary,” where DeSantis would face former President Donald Trump, who appointed three of the justices that voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, but acknowledged it was “not good in general” election.
“But you got to get to the general,” the adviser added.
In the year following the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Democrats have rattled off a series of victories built in part on voters mobilized by abortion. In solidly red Kansas, voters last year blocked a referendum that would have amended the state constitution to make abortion illegal. In key states like Pennsylvania and Nevada, Democrats pummeled Republican Senate candidate over their views on abortion – with great success, as the party held the US Senate. In battlegrounds like Arizona and Michigan, Democratic gubernatorial candidates won by vowing to lift longstanding state abortion bans that predated the Roe decision.
Whether the issue continues to animate general voters remains to be seen, but opinions on the Dobbs decision do not appear to have shifted. A Marquette Law School poll last month found two-thirds of voters opposed the ruling, nearly identical to the results in its survey following the November midterms.
Amid the national outcry to the SCOTUS decision, the typically outspoken DeSantis has remained uncharacteristically reserved on the topic. Unlike other issues, like eliminating college diversity programs and curbing legal protections for the media, he has elevated with staged news conferences and frequent messaging on conservative media, DeSantis has offered vague commitments to protect life but repeatedly declined to say where Florida should draw the line on abortion access.
In his lone debate last year against Democratic gubernatorial opponent Charlie Crist, DeSantis wouldn’t say what abortion restrictions he would pursue if reelected for a second term. Asked at a March news conference if he supported exceptions for victims rape and incest, DeSantis called it “sensible” and said he would “welcome pro-life legislation,” then quickly pivoted to another topic.
DeSantis signed the bill at 10:45 p.m. ET Thursday in a closed-door ceremony after returning from a political event in Ohio, a rare-late night action by a governor who often times his actions to maximize exposure.
“I can’t speculate on his mental processes and what he decides to speak on,” said John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian organization that supported the bill. “I’m concerned not with words but with action and he is a man of action.”
Some Republican operatives believe DeSantis is better positioned than others to stave off primary attacks from the right without alienating swing voters. In a series of posts on Twitter, Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the conservative American Principles Project, suggested that by supporting some exceptions for rape and incest, DeSantis would neutralize a key Democratic talking point.
“What moves voters the most? What did Democrats spend $500M talking about in the 2022 midterms? EXCEPTIONS,” Schweppe said. “Voters want exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. That’s the most important issue. Outside those exceptions, voters are fairly pro-life.”
Schweppe had previously raised the alarm that “Republicans need to figure out the abortion issue ASAP” after last week’s defeat of a conservative judge in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race.
The exceptions offered by Florida’s proposed six-week ban, though, are limited to 15 weeks after conception and require victims of rape and incest to show a police report or other evidence of their assault to obtain an abortion. Similarly, two doctors would have to sign off that a mother’s health is at serious risk or a fetal abnormality is fatal before a woman can end a pregnancy after 15 weeks.
Bill McCoshen, a veteran GOP consultant in Wisconsin, acknowledged that Democrats have campaigned effectively on abortion there in recent races. But he said it will be harder to attack DeSantis on abortion in his state, where the current law, passed in 1849 and reinstated after the fall of Roe, bars abortion without exceptions.
“To voters here, the perception of his answer will be that it’s better than the 1849 law,” McCoshen said. “If he signs that law, that will be an improvement of the law that’s here. It may not be as middle of the road as some states, but it’s better than what we currently have in many people’s minds.”
Still unclear, though, is how DeSantis will navigate new pressures from conservative voters, many of whom will expect their next nominee to use the powers of the presidency to end abortion nationwide. DeSantis, who has not yet declared but is laying the groundwork for a campaign, has so far not faced any questions about what abortion restrictions he would pursue if elected to the White House.
It’s a question that has already tripped up one potential rival for the nomination. A day after sidestepping a question earlier this week, Republican Sen. Tim Scott said on Thursday that it should be up to states to “solve that problem on their own” – but also said he would sign a federal 20-week ban if it reached his desk.
Nor has DeSantis weighed in on the ongoing legal saga surrounding mifepristone, one of the drugs that has been used safely for more than 20 years to provide abortions via medication.
“Right now, DeSantis represents his state and he has to be the voice of his state, but this is a tightrope he has to walk if he’s serious about running for president,” Tarkanian, the Nevada Republican said. “A lot of people don’t even realize they’re pregnant at seven weeks and if you’re pro-choice that’s a scary thought.”
Katie Daniel, the state policy director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said Republican candidates risk looking inauthentic if they try to obfuscate their position on abortion. She pointed to Pennsylvania Senate candidate and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who during the GOP primary called abortion “murder” at any stage but in the general election said he supported exceptions for rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk. Later, in a debate, Oz said, “I want women, doctors, local political leaders” to decide the issue at the state level.
“Our message to candidates is define yourself or other candidates will define it for you and you’re not going to like their version of you,” Daniel said. “The ostrich strategy of burying your head in the sand is not going to work.”