© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Republicans Think Abortion Rights Supporters Will Vote for Them Too

An abortion rights ballot measure in Florida is exciting Democrats. Republicans are keeping calm.

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Abortion rights ballot initiatives have been successful, even in Republican-led states. Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Every time abortion has literally been on the ballot — like in Michigan, Ohio and Kansas — voters have poured out in favor of abortion rights. Democrats have succeeded with abortion messaging, like Andy Beshear did in Kentucky, where he’s one of only two statewide Democrats in office. So now that Florida gets its chance to vote on abortion rights, Republicans should be fretting.

But national Republican officials are projecting calm. Their argument: Sure, this initiative will drive turnout, even among Republicans — but those Republican voters will cast their ballots for Republican candidates even as they vote to enshrine abortion rights into the state’s constitution.

“Abortion ballot initiatives will probably increase turnout, but I don’t think they’ll impact the race,” Rep. Richard Hudson, the chair of the official campaign arm for House Republicans, said.

He says his confidence is stemming from a belief that voters will split their ticket.

A November statewide Florida poll from the University of North Florida found that 53% of Republicans plan to vote for the ballot initiative. But 85% and 62% of Republican respondents said that they have favorable views of former President Trump and Sen. Rick Scott, respectively. The poll did not ask about House races.

“A lot of people” will vote for the Republican candidate and support a measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, Sen. Marco Rubio said. “People are going to vote, they’re going to come out and vote and I don’t think [the abortion rights measure] is going to change any turnout patterns.”

Carol Whitmore, a former commissioner in Manatee County — where Democrats only make up 26% of registered voters — said she lost her seat in 2022 over attacks from the right on her positions on abortion. Whitmore, who collected signatures to get the abortion initiative in front of voters, is one of the more than 150,000 registered Republicans who signed in support of the ballot initiative. According to data from the ballot measure’s sponsor, Floridians Protecting Freedom, more than 15% of the signatories were Republican, and roughly 26% were nonparty affiliated.

She said she’s still going to vote for Scott to win reelection.

“I know Rick Scott, he knows me personally, he knows how I feel about this and he respects me for that. And I respect him for how he believes,” Whitmore said. Scott has supported the state’s six-week ban that has yet to take effect. “I would support him because it’s not just one item, it’s not just one thing.”

Democrats are going all in on the abortion ballot initiative in Florida, with hopes that a presidential cycle with higher turnout will turn their electoral successes on the abortion front into a bigger majority in Congress come 2025. Scott’s challenger, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, has aligned herself strongly with the ballot initiative; her campaign said it’s counting on voters who will support “both the ballot measure and Debbie this November.”

When asked if he thought abortion rights ballot initiatives would help Democrats gain seats in Congress, Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, immediately said yes. “There’s no question those referendums will be helpful,” Peters said. “It turns out a lot of voters who care deeply about protecting women’s reproductive freedoms and oftentimes you get people that may not normally vote to come out to make sure that their voices are heard — and I think it will be good for our candidates.”And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has said that Republican voters’ support for Florida’s ballot initiative is “troubling news” for Reps. Anna Paulina Luna and Maria Elvira Salazar — who hold the two GOP seats Democrats are targeting in the state. “Voters won’t look kindly” at their anti-abortion record (both members have supported different bills that seek to curtail abortion access), House Democrats’ campaign arm said.

Data from past off-year elections show that abortion ballot initiatives outperformed Democratic candidates in California, Kentucky and Michigan and the abortion ballot initiatives didn’t automatically mean Democrats performed better down the ballot. Florida Democrats haven’t historically been able to count on other Democratic-led initiatives to mirror down-ballot votes — in 2020, a minimum wage amendment won by 61%, while the best-performing statewide Democrat, President Biden, got just 48%.

Republican voter registration has also shot up in Florida; in 2018, when Scott last ran, Democrats had a nearly 260,000-voter-registration advantage over Republicans, but as of December last year, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by around 780,000.

This difference, GOP consultants told NOTUS, gives Republicans an advantage.

“I don’t believe the abortion ballot initiative will necessarily hinder GOP candidates in statewide races, in part, because Republicans enjoy unparalleled institutional advantages in Florida and the Democrats are very weak in the state,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Republican media consultant from Miami.

Republicans gained supermajorities in both state legislative chambers in 2022 and there are no Democrats in Ron DeSantis’ cabinet as of this year.

That said, while national Republicans remain nonchalant about the abortion initiative, banking on the possibility of split-ticket voting, stateside, the party is showing some signs of agita.

The state’s attorney general, Ashley Moody, is challenging the ballot initiative, arguing that measure’s language is “misleading” to voters and therefore the state’s Supreme Court should “stricken” it from the ballot. The Florida Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in the case next week. (A group of Republican former electeds has also filed a legal brief opposing her challenge and Scott, too, said he wasn’t opposed to the abortion rights initiative being on the ballot, calling it “an opportunity for Floridians to express what they believe in.”)At least one Democrat, Rep. Darren Soto, one of Republicans’ top targets in the state, conceded the abortion initiative isn’t a silver bullet.

“We do have — in all likelihood — the adult-use marijuana amendment on there too. So, we already have one amendment that looks poised to get on that would help with Democratic-friendly voters coming out,” Soto said, citing the recreational marijuana constitutional amendment, which is also being challenged by state Republicans. “That and the fact that Democrats in Florida can’t stand Trump are two motivating factors.”

As for Whitmore, the Florida Republican who collected petition signatures for the abortion rights ballot measure, she’d only consider voting single-issue on abortion for a Democrat, if the constitutional amendment didn’t make the ballot.

“I think if I really thought it was gonna fail, maybe I’d think about it, but it’s not gonna fail,” she said.

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS. Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. Tara Kavaler, a NOTUS reporter and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow, contributed reporting.