Democrats eye Florida's abortion vote as chance to flip the state. History says it'll be a challenge

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Despite Florida's reputation as a newly bona fide red state, Democrats have new hope that a ballot question seeking to preserve abortion rights will put the state back in play as the nation's largest presidential election swing state.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court energized abortion rights proponents with two rulings: one that paves the way for a six-week abortion ban and another that will give voters the opportunity to repeal the ban as they also cast their vote for president.

“This puts Florida in play,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.

Newhouse said it’s not just the national abortion referendum, which has benefited Democrats in other states. It’s also the fact that Florida voters will be living with the strict newly implemented abortion restrictions for the months leading up to the November election.

But while it's true the battle over abortion has translated into electoral success for abortion rights advocates in other states, this is Florida, and Democrats have a history of turning opportunity into disappointment, leaving it to be determined whether the issue could flip Florida back blue as President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump head toward a rematch.

The abortion debate didn't stop Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis from winning reelection by a landslide in 2022, even after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. DeSantis signed new abortion restrictions and Democrats correctly warned he would further strip away rights to the procedure.

Adam Geller, a Republican pollster who polled for Trump’s campaign in 2019, said while the abortion vote has been “really energizing” in states with moderate or somewhat conservatives, Florida is an “obviously more Republican state.”

“What Biden has now in 2024 is the burden of defending his record the last four years,” Geller said. “With all of the things he has to defend in the last four years, abortion is simply going to get watered down and it's going to get lost in the context of these other issues.”

Support for abortion cuts across party lines and has been winning at the ballot box even in states that voted for Trump and have Republican-majority legislatures.

Voters sided with abortion rights in seven states since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, including Republican-leaning Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio.

In a landslide victory for abortion rights supporters, Kansas voters in 2022 rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have stripped residents of abortion rights. Kentucky voters similarly rejected a 2022 ballot measure aimed at denying constitutional protections for abortion. Last year, abortion rights were front and center in key races, including Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure enshrining protections in the state constitution.

Democrats have been reluctant to pump money into Florida — one of the most expensive states to buy campaign advertisement — but immediately sprung into action after Monday's ruling. Biden's campaign included Florida in an ad buy Tuesday, hitting Trump on abortion rights.

Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez said the state's high court has provided a longshot opening for Biden to win Florida.

“We’re clear-eyed about how hard it will be to win Florida, but we also know that Trump does not have it in the bag,” said Chávez Rodríguez on a phone call with reporters.

Asked after a speech on Tuesday about Florida’s six-week ban on abortion going into effect, Trump said, “We’ll be making a statement next week on abortion.”

The former president has been threading the needle when it comes to abortion. He routinely takes credit for appointing the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, paving the way for a wave of new restrictions.

But Trump has also repeatedly criticized fellow Republicans for being too hardline on the issue, blaming candidates who opposed exceptions — in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk — for the party’s midterm losses later that year.

And Trump, a New York snowbird turned Florida resident who will also vote on the state's abortion ballot question, previously called DeSantis’ signing of Florida’s six-week ban on the procedure a “terrible mistake ″ and suggested even anti-abortion activists found it “too harsh.”

Democrats have been striving to be relevant in Florida since 1999 when Republican Jeb Bush was sworn in and the GOP took control of the executive office and the Legislature for the first time. The following year Democrat Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes, giving George W. Bush the presidency.

During the five-week struggle to settle Florida's 2000 election, Gore's strategy was to seek recounts in targeted counties until the Supreme Court stopped the process. A media analysis and ballot review concluded Gore would have still lost under the recounts he sought, but he could have won had he successfully fought for a statewide recount.

Following 2000, Florida supported Bush for reelection, then twice gave the state to Barack Obama before backing Trump for two terms. Republicans have consistently won statewide races for governor, Senate and cabinet, but often by razor margins, raising Democrats' hopes for the next election cycle only to see them dashed again.

Here's a small list of issues where Democrats believed they were finally going to win back power in Florida:

— In 2002, Jeb Bush campaigned against a wildly popular ballot proposal to limit school class sizes. The class size amendment passed with overwhelming support, but so did Bush.

— In 2004, Democrats thought anger over losing the 2000 recount and President Bush's low approval rating were going to help party nominee John Kerry take the state. Bush easily won Florida.

— In 2006, Jeb Bush was being forced out of office by term limits, and Democrats saw the open governor's seat as a potential pickup. They were miserably wrong, as then-Republican Charlie Crist easily defeated his Democratic challenger.

— In 2010, Democrats mistakenly saw Obama's 2008 victory as a harbinger for success, only to see Republican Marco Rubio ride the tea party movement to win a Senate seat.

— In 2010, then Democratic chief financial officer Alex Sink, was considered a shoo-in over Republican Rick Scott, then-dogged by his past as the CEO of a hospital chain that paid a record Medicaid fraud fine. Scott won with less than half the vote and was reelected again in 2014, again with less than half the vote.

— In 2016, Democrats hoped having a medical marijuana referendum on the ballot would help boost Hillary Clinton over Trump. It didn't.

— In 2018, Democrats were convinced that DeSantis's decision to run as a mini-Trump would make him a loser at the polls. DeSantis won with less than 50% of the vote in an election requiring a recount.

And once DeSantis took office, Republicans overtook Democrats' advantage in voter registration, DeSantis won reelection in 2022 by a record margin for a Republican, Rubio won reelection by an enormous margin and Republicans made further gains in the Legislature and in Congress. Florida now has more than 5.2 million Republicans compared to fewer than 4.4 million Democrats.


AP writers Stephany Matat in West Palm Beach, Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Christine Fernando in Chicago, Colleen Long in Washington, D.C., and Jill Colvin and Steve Peoples in New York City contributed to this report.