Abortion was supposed to be a defining issue for Florida Democrats. What happened?

Across the country, voters protected abortion rights. Not in Florida.
Protesters fill the street in front of the Supreme Court after the court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in Washington, June 24, 2022.
Protesters fill the street in front of the Supreme Court after the court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in Washington, June 24, 2022. [ JACQUELYN MARTIN | AP ]
Published Nov. 12, 2022

During his only debate with Gov. Ron DeSantis, Charlie Crist didn’t wait to be asked about abortion.

In his opening statement, the 2022 Democratic nominee for governor launched into an unprompted broadside against DeSantis, cautioning voters that his race presented a “stark contrast” between a candidate who believes in keeping abortions accessible and one who does not.

Crist and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings — who challenged Republican Sen. Marco Rubio — aired television commercials that mentioned abortion nearly 28,000 times in the summer and fall, according to an analysis by the anti-abortion advocacy group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. The duo and their allies spent some $12 million on those ads, the analysis found.

The abortion access group Florida Planned Parenthood PAC also spent $1.4 million on the 2022 elections.

Despite all that messaging during what Democrats described as a pivotal post-Roe v. Wade election, Florida Democrats got obliterated. Crist lost by nearly 20 points. Demings got trounced by 16. That’s in a year where voters in five states came out in favor of protecting abortion rights on ballot measures, and the issue helped Democrats perform stronger than expected elsewhere.

What set Florida apart? It depends on whom you ask.

Those who support abortion rights say even though Democratic candidates did focus on abortion, their message was simply drowned out by other issues raised by their well-funded opponents.

“DeSantis and Rubio refused to talk about it,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

Meanwhile, those who support abortion restrictions say just the opposite: Florida leaders were reelected on an anti-abortion platform because they didn’t shy away from the issue.

When asked about the charge that he ducked the abortion topic, DeSantis’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

But some anti-abortion advocates praised how DeSantis handled the issue. When the governor was asked about abortion at the debate with Crist, Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, took particular notice of his answer.

DeSantis said onstage that he was “proud” of the bill he signed earlier this year banning most abortions after 15 weeks. Then he went on offense, accusing Crist of supporting “sex-selective abortions” and “dismemberment abortions, where they literally will tear the baby limb from limb.”

“Having looked over all the other states we’re involved in, the difference (in Florida was) the willingness of the candidates — and I’m speaking of Rubio and DeSantis right now — to fully embrace and communicate what their position is with courage and tenacity,” Dannenfelser said.

For his part, Rubio’s campaign pointed to numerous instances where the candidate talked about abortion. For example, at a September event with Christian leaders, Rubio reportedly said the right of an unborn child to live should be prioritized over the life of their mother.

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“I would rather be right and lose an election than wrong,” Rubio said then about abortion, according to WPLG-Channel 10 in Miami.

Many voters showed up to vote this November with abortion at the top of their minds. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of national exit polling data found that some 38% of the electorate said the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Constitutional right to an abortion had a “major” effect on their decision to vote in 2022.

The abortion issue was so pivotal, it effectively counterbalanced the electorate’s concerns about Democrats’ handling of major economic issues like inflation, that analysis found.

The election results show that didn’t happen in Florida. Part of that had likely to do with funding. Like the Democratic Party itself, national abortion rights groups largely punted on Florida. The “key races to watch” web page for Planned Parenthood Votes, an independent expenditure committee aligned with the women’s health nonprofit, listed 10 states. Florida was not among them. (Some of those states, like Michigan, put abortion ballot initiatives before voters. Florida did not — but may in the coming years.)

Related: Florida lawmakers say further abortion restrictions likely

“The Republicans were absolutely able to outspend” abortion rights advocates, said Laura Goodhue, the executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates.

Outgoing Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who sponsored the 15-week ban, said Florida voters showed they trust Republicans on the abortion issue. That’s true in part because of Republican leaders’ “measured” approach to passing restrictions, she said.

“We weren’t speaking to the extreme or acting extreme,” Stargel said. “I think we’ve been communicating that these are lives, and explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing. I think the people of Florida recognize that.”

Eskamani, the progressive Orlando Democrat who was one of the few in her party to survive 2022, would disagree with that assessment. In Tallahassee, she often voices the opinion that all abortion bans are extreme.

Related: Florida legislative races a disaster for Democrats, GOP wins 15 of 21 local seats

But in the wake of Florida’s red wave, Eskamani said she’s sure of one thing: More restrictions are coming.

“Abortion will absolutely be banned,” she said. “It is a shame we didn’t have the resources to properly fight back.”

• • •

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