Florida’s Ballot Measure on Abortion Could Give Democrats a Lifeline

The reproductive rights referendum could fuel turnout and make key races more competitive.

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On Tuesday, Susan MacManus, a political science professor emerita at the University of South Florida, spoke to a Democratic club in Sarasota about the upcoming election. Despite polling consistently showing that Donald Trump is expected to claim the state in November and that incumbent Republican Senator Rick Scott is “likely” to retain his power in Washington, the group, according to MacManus, was “euphoric, as you might imagine.”

Their jubilance had much to do with the Florida Supreme Court’s Monday decision allowing a state ballot measure seeking to enshrine abortion rights to be voted on in November. Since the fall of Roe v. Wade two years ago, reproductive rights advocates have been victorious on every abortion rights ballot measure that has been attempted, including in Republican-dominated states such as Ohio, Kentucky, and Kansas. These ballot measures have also elevated voter turnout—an integral component of election success, but one that Florida Democrats can’t seem to crack.

Before the Monday decision, being a Democrat in Florida was like being a ship without a harbor. Trump claimed the state in both 2016 and 2020. Incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio defeated former police officer and congresswoman Val Demings by more than 16 points in 2022. Both chambers in the statehouse currently have GOP supermajorities, which would allow them to override a governor’s veto pen. There’s little need for that, however. Republicans have held the governor’s mansion since 1999; Gov. Ron DeSantis beat his Democratic gubernatorial challenger by nearly 20 points in 2022.

In the wake of the Monday ruling, some Democratic groups and experts see the abortion ballot measure as a rising tide that could lift all Democratic candidates in the state. 

“They really see it a much needed shot of adrenaline,” says MacManus, “at a time when enthusiasm was waning a bit for the election cycle.”

Prior to the state supreme court decision on abortion, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) did not include any Florida seats in its early lists of state legislative races to prioritize in November 2024. Now the organization is taking a closer look at whether it is possible to chip away at the Republicans’ fortress.

“We must mobilize…leading into Election Day for a brighter future where fundamental freedoms are protected in Florida,” the group, which works to elect Democratic candidates to state office, said in a press release. “We will continue working to elect champions of reproductive justice and building Democratic power in state legislatures across the country.”

Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic minority leader in the Florida House of Representatives, tells Mother Jones she sees the ballot measure as a potential boon in her quest to dismantle the Republican stranglehold on her chamber. “We have a competent plan to break the supermajority. We need to win five seats,” says Driskell. “I do believe they are winnable. I already believed they were winnable, but I think the ballot initiative really helps us.” 

Driskell points to a January special election for a statehouse seat in central Florida in which a Democrat beat out a Republican challenger after a Republican incumbent resigned for a university gig. The Republican candidate supported a six-week abortion ban, which Driskell believes cost her the race. “The Republican candidate was immediately disqualified because of her stance on abortion,” Driskell says. It was the first Florida legislative seat that’s been flipped from red to blue since 2018.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the national party’s arm for electing Democrats to the US House, believes the news of the ballot measure may impede the campaigns of the Republican incumbent congresswomen in the two districts the organization has identified as competitive.

“This is a serious blow for anti-abortion extremists Anna Paulina Luna and María Elvira Salazar,” says DCCC spokesperson Lauryn Fanguen. “There’s no question that when abortion rights are on the ballot, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike turn out to vote to protect their freedoms.” (Both incumbents have earned A+ ratings from the Susan B. Anthony anti-abortion group.)

Even the Biden campaign now thinks Florida—Trump’s state of residence, which Biden lost by 370,000 votes in 2020—is now in play. “Make no mistake: Florida is not an easy state to win, but it is a winnable one for President Biden, especially given Trump’s weak, cash-strapped campaign, and serious vulnerabilities within his coalition,” Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s 2024 campaign manager, wrote in a Monday memo that chiefly mentioned abortion. “With an abortion amendment officially on the ballot this November in Florida, President Biden and Vice President Harris and their commitment to fighting back against Donald Trump and Rick Scott’s attacks on reproductive freedom will help mobilize and expand the electorate in the state.”

Perhaps no candidate has more to gain from the presence of the reproductive-rights ballot measure than Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former congresswoman who is running against Scott to represent Florida in the Senate. When presented with the ballot in November, voters will decide whether to approve the referendum to allow abortions in the state up to fetal viability (estimated to be around 23-24 weeks) or let the state’s new six-week ban—which Florida’s supreme court also granted Monday—to stand. Simultaneously, Florida voters will choose between Scott, one of the country’s most vocal anti-abortion lawmakers, and Mucarsel-Powell, a staunch reproductive-rights proponent, to represent them in the Senate. “That’s the race that probably would be the easiest to tie the candidate to that issue,” says MacManus.

Scott previously said he would have signed the six-week ban into law if he was still governor, he co-sponsored a bill for a national 20-week abortion ban in 2021, and he also signed an amicus brief in 2023 in support of restrictions on a pill that is used in medication abortions.

“We’re going to make sure that Floridians remember that Rick Scott has been attacking women’s rights for years,” Mucarsel-Powell says. “One of the key issues here that Floridians will realize very soon and by the time November comes, is that it will mean nothing if they vote to pass this ballot amendment and enshrine in the state’s constitution a woman’s right to her reproductive health care if then they elect Rick Scott, send him back to the Senate, and then he pushes for a national abortion ban.”

In Florida, ballot measures require 60 percent support to pass, a higher standard than the thresholds in the other conservative states that have seen success on reproductive rights referendums. To establish the amendment, a combination of independent voters and Republicans will have to join Democrats in voting for it. 

A Democratic Senate campaign strategist who requested anonymity to speak openly says that other ballot measures have passed on a non-partisan basis, and she believes the presence of the ballot measure in November will inspire non-Democrats in Florida to look beyond the Senate candidates’ political affiliations to see how their policy positions may impact them.

The issue is “more literal now,” she says. “If you need an abortion, the closest place you can go is North Carolina.” 

“You have to tell someone, ‘This is why it’s okay to vote for somebody that you wouldn’t normally vote for,'” she adds. The ballot measure “kind of creates that permission structure in that way.”

Democrats won’t only have to inspire unaffiliated and centrist Republican voters with the help of the ballot measure. They’ll also have to get their own voters to show up.

“There’s a lot of pessimism towards the Democratic Party and the likelihood that this will be a battleground state, as opposed to a red or reddish state,” says Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. “I think that’s largely a question of turnout. And Democrats have had major problems turning out not only their supporters, but also what we call no-party-affiliation voters, which make up a little less than 30 percent of all the registered voters.”

No-party-affiliation voters tend to be younger, more diverse, and more issue-focused rather than candidate-focused. “They also tend not to turn out to vote,” says Smith. “And yet Democrats need them if they’re going to be successful.”

Fortunately for Democrats, the abortion ballot measure and another measure seeking to legalize marijuana should attract no-party-affiliation voters, according to Smith.

But there’s also the question of money and resources. 

“It costs millions to win a race in Florida,” says MacManus. And Republicans have the leg up there. Scott, who benefits from widespread name recognition as a former governor and incumbent Senator, has raised nearly $9 million in 2023 alone, according to his campaign’s latest Federal Election Commission filing. Mucarsel-Powell “has to have financial support from all over the place,” MacManus adds. “There’s not enough just from Florida. She needs a lot of money to be competitive. A lot.”

While the Biden campaign has announced its ambition for a Democratic resurgence in Florida, it will have to put its money where its mouth is. Shortly after the Florida supreme court ruling, the campaign announced a “seven-figure” canvassing buy for an advertisement highlighting Trump’s role in decimating abortion access to be played in battleground states, including Florida. 

But a Mother Jones review of Google Analytics data shows that “Biden for President” has so far invested just $16,500 in Google ads—which can also appear on YouTube—in Florida since January 1. That includes roughly $10,000-15,000 on the abortion ad this week. In contrast, Biden for President has spent $535,000 in Pennsylvania and $460,000 in Michigan over the same time span.

“There’s been no real investment at all from the national party or the Biden campaign,” says Thomas Kennedy, a former elected Democratic National Committee member in Florida who resigned in protest of Biden’s stance on the Israel-Gaza war.

There’s still seven months to turn that around, and while the abortion ballot measure may be a buoy—it can’t be the only one.

“The mere fact that the initiative’s on the ballot is not enough,” says Driskell, the state house minority leader, “but it does give us a lane to talk to voters about issues that matter to them.”

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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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