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Supreme Court abortion draft ruling could play big in Demings-Rubio Senate race

An opinion that is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade could put more focus on the race for the Florida Senate seat.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings. [ AP and Tribune News Service photos ]
Published May 6|Updated May 8

A likely imminent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade could galvanize voters on both sides of the abortion debate in Florida as Democrat Val Demings and Republican Marco Rubio draw sharp contrasts in their Senate race.

In the wake of Politico’s report that Justice Samuel Alito has written a draft opinion that would overturn the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, Demings vowed in a campaign speech in Jacksonville this week to continue to fight for abortion access and hammered GOP incumbent Rubio on social media for his longstanding opposition to abortion.

“The draft opinion makes the stakes in this race clear: Roe v. Wade is under threat and we need leaders in the United States Senate who will stand up for women’s freedoms to control their own bodies and make their own choices,” Demings told the Herald in a statement. “Women are pleading with us to protect their basic, constitutional rights and not go back to being treated as second-class citizens whose personal decisions are made by politicians like Marco Rubio.”

The revelation of the draft opinion, which could be officially issued in weeks, has brought a new sense of purpose to Demings and other Democratic contenders around the country as the party looks to hold onto its narrow majorities in the House and Senate.

Related: Florida Democrats hope anti-abortion Supreme Court ruling could supercharge governor's race

The incumbent president’s party traditionally loses seats in the midterm election, but a ruling overturning Roe could motivate some Democratic-leaning voters who would otherwise stay home.

The potential ruling would increase pressure on Democrats to pass legislation to formally codify Roe as federal law, something the party will only be able to do if it defies expectations and gains seats in the Senate in November.

Demings, an Orlando congresswoman who has co-sponsored the legislation in the House, said the bill has “stalled in the Senate because politicians like Marco Rubio fight relentlessly against the right of Florida women to control their own destiny.”

For his part, Rubio downplayed the electoral impact of the potential decision.

“We’ll find out in November,” Rubio said, later adding that he is not a political consultant when asked whether abortion would motivate turnout. He reaffirmed his opposition to abortion, but he pointed to a host of other issues that would be a focus of his campaign.

“My stance on life is well-defined and unchanged, and repeated,” Rubio told the Miami Herald Wednesday. “I’ll also be focused on things like 7,000 people a day crossing the border illegally, inflation and the security of this country and the challenge of facing China. When you run for office, you talk about everything that matters.”

A day later, he used the uproar over the pending decision as an opportunity to mock trans-inclusive language used by some activists. “If we have ‘pregnant people’ then how can Roe be about ‘a woman’s right to choose’?” Rubio said on Twitter.

Related: What you need to know about the future of abortion in Florida

Florida advocates prepare for ruling, next steps

Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said Democrats have been too shy in speaking about abortion in recent years and that they should be relentless in tying Rubio and other Republicans to the decision both before and after it’s officially issued.

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“This is a Republican abortion ban. I think it needs to be made very clear that Republicans want to strip away the right to make decisions about your body,” Eskamani said, noting that such a decision would rely on former President Donald Trump’s three appointees to the court.

“You can’t just talk about it now though. You have to keep talking about it because what we don’t want to happen is this to fall off people’s radars,” said Eskamani, who previously served as senior director of public affairs and communications for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

The draft opinion comes at a time when GOP-led states, including Florida, are enacting an array of new abortion restrictions at the state level.

The Supreme Court decision would give the green light to states to enact full bans of the procedure and likely set up a legal patchwork between states.

Abortion rights supporters in Florida are bracing for new restrictions from Tallahassee after the state Legislature passed a ban on abortion after 15 weeks in its most recent session.

Related: Will Florida Republicans ban abortion? Here's what we know.

“It will embolden them without a doubt,” said Key West Mayor Teri Johnston, one of more than 70 female mayors to sign a letter criticizing the draft opinion.

Abortion opponents are also expecting new legislation. John Stemberger, the president and general counsel of the Florida Family Policy Council, said there will be pressure on state lawmakers to pass a heartbeat bill that bans abortion after six weeks if the draft decision holds.

“This decision is going to motivate our people. It’s also going to motivate the other side,” Stemberger said about the electoral impact.

But in Florida, Stemberger said that’ll ultimately favor Rubio, the incumbent Republican first elected to the Senate in 2010. Stemberger said Florida Republicans should embrace the decision on the campaign trail.

“I think we would like them to say this is a historical moment that we can love children and not kill them, that adoption is always the better option,” Stemberger said.

People attend an abortion rights rally organized by Party for Socialism and Liberalism Tampa Bay along Central Avenue, downtown, on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
People attend an abortion rights rally organized by Party for Socialism and Liberalism Tampa Bay along Central Avenue, downtown, on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Rick Scott and the larger fight for Senate control

If the final opinion resembles the draft opinion, it will represent the culmination of five decades of conservative legal advocacy. But Republicans aren’t celebrating yet.

“First off, we don’t have an opinion because that’s not a final opinion. That was a draft. We need to wait until we have a final opinion,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chairperson of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“I think we’re going to win this year and we’re going to win because we’re on the right side of these issues,” Scott said when asked about how a potential decision could affect the Senate map.

The cautious statements from GOP senators reflect both the tentative nature of the draft and the potentially tricky electoral politics.

Keeping their focus on President Joe Biden and inflation could be a more beneficial strategy for Republicans than elevating the focus on abortion.

A May 3 survey of 1,955 registered voters by Morning Consult and Politico found that 50 percent of voters opposed overturning Roe v. Wade compared to just 28 percent who supported overturning it. And roughly the same percentage, 47 percent, supported passing national legislation to codify abortion rights.

Related: Most Florida voters oppose abortion bans, polls show

The National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a talking points memo to GOP candidates Tuesday that instructed candidates to “call Democrats out for using obsession over abortion to avoid talking about their record” and offered a sample statement to candidates that began by focusing on the leak rather than the substance of the opinion.

An internal polling memo prepared by OnMessage Inc., the consulting firm that advises Scott, tested messages for Republican candidates and found that a plurality of 43 percent of respondents supported elected officials setting abortion policy compared to just 24 percent who said “unelected judges,” according to the document shared by Scott’s team.

The internal GOP poll also tested messages on a 15-week ban, finding that 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that it “is wrong to allow abortions after 15 weeks when unborn babies can suck their thumb and feel pain,” a wording that Republicans may use on the campaign trail to defend such bans.

Scott’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said individual candidates will determine their messaging on the coming decision, but he promised that abortion access will be a major theme for the party.

“I think there’s no question that this is a big issue that’s going to be on the ballot and the majority of the American people think it’s wrong for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. And we will talk about it in the campaign very aggressively,” said Peters, who is chairperson of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

For her part, Demings is stressing the personal nature of the decision. In a clip from her Jacksonville speech posted by her campaign, the Democratic congresswoman is emphasizing the personal nature of decisions around pregnancies.

“When I decided to start my family, I didn’t ask the governor’s permission. I didn’t ask my congressman’s permission. I dang well sure didn’t ask my senator’s position. They need to get out of our business and leave the personal decisions, the intimate decisions to women. Am I right about that?” Demings said to applause. “Doggone it, get a life!”

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