As DeSantis eyes the White House, how is abortion helping and hurting him?

The six-week ban DeSantis signed into law is impressing the primary’s anti-abortion crowd, but it could hurt him in a general election.
Protesters chant during an abortion protest on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Tampa.
Protesters chant during an abortion protest on Saturday, July 2, 2022, in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published June 9|Updated June 9

When he kicked off his presidential campaign in socially conservative Iowa, Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged about the six-week abortion ban he signed into law.

Just a couple days later, while campaigning in “live free or die” New Hampshire, DeSantis avoided talking about the issue.

If the early days of his presidential campaign are any indication, DeSantis must walk a difficult line on abortion. Access to the procedure remains popular with most Americans, exposing DeSantis to some general election risk if he focuses too much on the issue. Polling shows that more than 60% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center.

Donors gathered for DeSantis’ May campaign launch in Miami expressed worry that DeSantis’ stance would be too extreme for more moderate voters, according to audio obtained by Florida Politics.

But DeSantis might also need to point to his abortion record to distinguish himself from former President Donald Trump, who suggested the six-week law DeSantis signed was “too harsh.” A super PAC supporting DeSantis blasted Trump — who is DeSantis’ main rival for the Republican presidential primary — for that remark.

DeSantis isn’t new to straddling the line between anti-abortion parts of his base and the recognition that hard limits on abortion access could cause public backlash. Floridians generally support access to legal abortions at a higher rate than neighboring southern states, polling finds. When he signed the six-week ban into place, he did so in a private, late-night gathering in his office. And the next day, DeSantis made no mention of it during a speech at Liberty University, a private Baptist school in Virginia.

During his 2022 campaign for reelection, DeSantis often focused on other issues than abortion despite Democratic opponent Charlie Crist attempting to hammer him on it. DeSantis handily won that race.

Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said the 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade — the landmark Supreme Court case that created a constitutional right to an abortion — has fundamentally changed the political conversation.

For years before the case was overturned, Republicans could speak in broad language condemning abortion without having to deal with the reality of what limited abortion access would look like, he said. Now, Miller said Republicans are struggling to figure out how to handle the anti-abortion movement they helped grow while trying not to lose the support of moderate voters.

“They can’t all of a sudden become moderate on abortion,” Miller said. “They can’t disown the pro-life movement now, that in some ways, the pro-life movement is an albatross around the neck of Republicans.”

Kelsey Pritchard, the director of State Public Affairs at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said the real political liability is when Republicans retreat from talking about abortion and let Democrats define the issue.

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“In order to win, Republicans must be clear about their position on protections for the unborn and contrast it with the extremism of Democrats’ agenda for abortion up until birth, paid for by the taxpayer, and no parental consent,” Pritchard said in an email.

The organization said it wants candidates who support a federal limit on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. So far, both DeSantis and Trump have declined to endorse that.

We want to protect the rights of states to be able to make those judgments, particularly states that are protecting life,” DeSantis said when asked about a federal limit by a reporter in New Hampshire.

Other GOP contenders have also discussed abortion as they pitch themselves for president. Former Vice President Mike Pence has perhaps the most conservative view on abortion, saying he thinks it should be outlawed in every state. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has said he supports a 20-week federal ban, while former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has said a federal ban is “not realistic.” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who jumped into the presidential race this week, in April signed into law a bill allowing abortions only in cases of rape or incest and only during the first six weeks of pregnancy.

It’s unclear exactly how much abortion will sway voters in 2024 in either the primary or general election. But Democratic groups and groups in favor of abortion access are already using the issue against DeSantis, and political observers have pointed to abortion as a possible factor in Democrats securing midterm wins in many parts of the country.

“Voters in Florida don’t support his anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, and DeSantis will soon learn that the rest of the country doesn’t, either,” Jenny Lawson, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, said in a statement when DeSantis announced his campaign. “Everyone will see him for the dangerous, out-of-touch, overzealous politician he is.”

During the 2022 election cycle, voters in reliably red Kansas rejected a constitutional amendment that would have severely limited abortion access. Counties that never vote for any Democrat, on any level, rejected that amendment, Miller said.

But the same voters that cycle who rejected the amendment voted in candidates who were anti-abortion. Miller cautioned that it will take time to see how things play out on a broad national level.

Claire McKinney, a government professor at William & Mary University, said in prior statewide elections around the U.S., groups would put anti-abortion referendums on the ballot in order to motivate more conservative voters to show up. Polling showed that about two to three percent of the electorate were motivated to turn out primarily because of abortion in those instances, McKinney said.

Though there’s still not great information about how voter behavior has shifted after Roe’s reversal, McKinney said that the kind of primary voter motivated to turn out primarily because of abortion has likely flipped in favor of someone who supports abortion access.

McKinney said it’s likely Democrats see abortion as a winning issue and will continue to press DeSantis and other Republicans about it.

“So many elections these days are decided in that very narrow margin,” McKinney said. “It doesn’t take a lot for people who are primarily motivated by abortion access to swing an election.”