TALLAHASSEE — Of all the places to go to rally advocates for reproductive rights on the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Vice President Kamala Harris on Sunday will travel to Florida’s capital — and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ home turf — to exploit an issue that even supporters of the conservative culture warrior say may be a vulnerability.
Harris will “deliver a major address” and speak about “what’s at stake for millions of women across the country and, most importantly, the need for Congress to codify the protections of Roe into law,” White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.
Organizers of the event, Ruth’s List Florida and Planned Parenthood of Florida, are busing in supporters from around the state as the battle over abortion access shifts to the states after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturned nearly 50 years of legal precedent.
“Florida is one of those ground-zero states, and Tallahassee lets them take it to DeSantis,’’ said state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton. “The governor is literally on the wrong side of voters.”
As a potential candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2024, DeSantis’ posture on the volatile issue has opened him up to attacks from all sides. The rift underscores his dilemma: The majority of the public doesn’t want stricter abortion laws, but his conservative supporters are demanding them.
Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates , said Harris chose Florida for two reasons: “The White House is signaling that the fight is in the states now, and we’re not going to sit back and let people lose access to care and worsen this public health crisis.”
And because Florida is adjacent to two states with stricter abortion requirements, Planned Parenthood facilities “have seen a quadruple increase in patients from out of state seeking abortion care.”
Abortion opponents say Harris is coming for a reason
The choice of Florida as the site for the vice presidential visit is not lost on abortion opponents, including those who have openly criticized DeSantis and Florida’s legislators for failing to do more to restrict abortions in the state.
“I would think the governor should be embarrassed that she’s coming to his state to rally the troops, and that they kind of look at this deeply red state as a firewall,’’ said Andrew Shirvell, the founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, a grass-roots antiabortion group.
“If she really wants to take on these deep red states that have completely banned abortion, she’d be in Austin, or in Oklahoma City or in Little Rock, but she’s not. She’s here in Tallahassee,’’ Shirvell said. “I think that’s because her base of supporters senses that with DeSantis and the Republican legislature, this is the one weak issue that they’ve shown time and time again that they won’t address.”
Last week, DeSantis came under fire from South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem, another potential 2024 candidate, who called him out in an interview on CBS News after her chief of staff accused DeSantis of “hiding behind a 15-week ban” while South Dakota bans all abortion unless the pregnant woman’s life is endangered.
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John Stemberger, president of antiabortion group Florida Family Action, said Harris’ visit “has much more to do with politics than it has to do with abortion.”
“Out of over 19,000 cities in America, she is coming to the one city where America’s most popular governor lives to basically stage an in-your-face political statement,’’ he said. “The governor is not merely a state leader. He is also a national leader who is a present and future threat to the Biden-Harris administration and their radical agenda.”
In December, DeSantis said he is “willing to sign great life legislation” when asked if he would support a six-week abortion ban during Florida’s coming legislative session. But he made no mention of the issue in his inaugural speech or in multiple events with supporters since.
DeSantis silence doesn’t go unnoticed
Shirvell said that kind of response won’t help DeSantis if he has “ambitions to defeat pro-life governors in other states.”
“’Great life legislation? I mean, what is that?’’ he quipped, quoting the governor. “This is a crisis situation. It’s very disappointing for our pro-life governor and our pro-life legislature to be totally indifferent to it. I mean, they seem to be talking more about saving gas stoves than they do all the unborn children.”
As DeSantis and Republican allies in the Legislature have remained silent in the midst of the criticism on the right, Democrats are ready to pounce.
“One thing is for sure is that we can expect a further restriction on abortion, because that is what the governor wants,’’ said Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, the House Democratic leader.
If the Dobbs decision energized supporters of abortion bans, the midterm elections appeared to tamp down that enthusiasm. In the six states that put abortion-related initiatives on the ballot, voters in each of them favored more expansive abortion access, she said. “This is not what Floridians want. It would be the governor imposing his will and his beliefs on the people of Florida.”
A statewide poll by the University of South Florida and Florida International University found that a majority of Floridians disapproved of the Dobbs decision, but there is little agreement about what Florida should do next when it comes to abortion policy.
Florida Republican legislators haven’t acted yet
When asked, Florida Republican lawmakers continue to proclaim their allegiance to stricter abortion laws, but they have been reluctant to put anything in writing.
“The timing of that is yet to be determined,’’ House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, told reporters Thursday. “We have not finalized any of that. We continue talking to our members. We have a pro-life majority. … We have a lot of dialogue but nothing to announce today.”
Since the election gave Republicans a super-majority in both the state House and Senate, and the governor won a 19-point reelection victory, rumors have been circulating that they had the votes to pursue stricter abortion limits and would call a special session before the regular session in March to tackle the issue.
But DeSantis spokesperson Bryan Griffin said last week that the governor will decide to call a special session on abortion “after we see what happens in regular session.”
Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, said she could support tightening restrictions on abortion, but she wants to lower the ban only to 12 weeks and include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, which do not exist in the current law.
Democrats expect legislation
Skidmore said she expects to see a bill that expands abortion restrictions. Republicans who are reluctant to support them will justify it by including exceptions for rape and incest because “the governor will demand it, but not because he cares about abortion,’’ she said.
Shirvell accused DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature of “hiding behind” a lawsuit pending before the Florida Supreme Court as their “excuse” for not adopting further abortion restrictions when they met in special session last year. Abortion rights advocates argue that the 15-week ban violates the privacy clause in the Florida Constitution. A ruling is expected by July.
And while no legislation has yet been drafted to tighten the ban, DeSantis has used his executive authority to keep pressure on abortion rights advocates.
His supporters point to his ousting Tampa State Attorney Andrew Warren last year for threatening to not enforce Florida’s 15-week ban, and last week, after the federal Food and Drug Administration finalized a rule that will allow retail pharmacies to offer abortion pills in the U.S, state regulators warned pharmacies that two state laws make it illegal in Florida.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who rescheduled an Orlando rally from Sunday to Saturday to accommodate supporters who wanted to attend the vice president’s event, said by gathering supporters in the capital, activists “bring the fight right to the governor’s front door.”
“DeSantis will have to answer the question of what is he going to do this session,’’ she said. “You have people like Speaker Renner and others who are either avoiding the question or giving wishy-washy answers and, at the end of the day, we know DeSantis is an antiabortion extremist and this is forcing his hand to say something.”
This will be the second time in less than a year that Harris has come to Florida to discuss abortion rights. Last July, she held a roundtable with Democratic state legislators in Orlando. Planned Parenthood’s President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson will join Harris at the rally.