Florida Democrats hope anti-abortion Supreme Court ruling could supercharge governor’s race

Lily Kalandjian, a 19-year-old University of Florida junior, was checking her social media Monday night when she got a notification about the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion suggesting the court will strike down Roe v. Wade.

Even though the spring semester is over, her organization, the University of Florida College Democrats, didn’t sit back. By Tuesday, the group was finishing a social media graphic listing abortion resources and where people can register to vote, she said. Some of the group’s leaders coordinated a rally with Planned Parenthood.

Kalandjian, a young, liberal college student, is exactly the type of voter Democrats are hoping will be energized to cast a ballot in November as a consequence of the looming abortion ruling and potential changes to abortion access. She said she’s hopeful that many of her peers, normally uninterested or too busy for politics in non-presidential years, may now see why voting always matters.

“Especially since this is something we didn’t think could be overturned … now that these rights are threatened, I think it will wake up a lot of young people,” she said.

Related: Draft opinion suggests Supreme Court will overturn Roe v Wade abortion ruling

Florida Democrats spent the 24 hours following the bombshell leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion angry, then motivated, they said. The shock waves quickly reached the governor’s race, as all three of the Democratic candidates running to replace Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted or attended rallies Tuesday.

“This is going to be a monumental shift in the politics of our state,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, one of the Democrats running for governor, said in a phone interview. “This is our moment, and it also proves how important it is to get the right candidate into office. … If we don’t flip our state, more and more of our rights are going to be encroached upon.”

A person holds a clothes hanger and another an American flag while attending a pro-abortion rally on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Many of Florida’s Republican leaders were quiet Tuesday, declining to say whether the state would springboard from a potential Supreme Court decision to enact an abortion law that goes farther than the 15-week ban recently signed into law. DeSantis’ reelection campaign declined to comment.

But even as polling shows a majority of Floridians support some access to legal abortions, Republicans brushed off talk of the issue galvanizing Democrats in a state where the party has been losing ground in voter registrations.

“You can use this as a headline: wishful thinking by the Democrats,” said Christian Ziegler, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Related: Will Florida Republicans ban abortion? Here’s what we know.

Mobilizing whom?

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said it’s possible both Republicans and Democrats in Florida could be energized by an eventual Supreme Court decision striking down abortion rights — the former out of a sense of victory, and the latter due to fear.

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But in a state that already has a governor who’s constantly pushing the state’s politics rightward and firing up his base, Democrats might have more to gain.

“Many of those conservative, pro-life voters were probably turning out anyway,” he said.

Jewett also added that the two female candidates for governor, Fried and state Sen. Annette Taddeo, might see an extra boost on this issue.

Ione Townsend, chairperson of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, said she’s hopeful an anti-abortion decision could anger a key group of voters.

“This is an issue that will keep the suburban women that voted for Trump in 2016 and against him in 2020 … completely in the Democratic camp,” she said. She added that the decision is coming from an “activist court” being influenced by the justices’ religious beliefs, when “Lady Justice is supposed to be blind.”

People attend a pro-abortion rally in downtown St. Petersburg on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
People attend a pro-abortion rally in downtown St. Petersburg on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Sen. Lauren Book, the Democratic minority leader from Plantation, also said the Republican Party has turned extreme.

She pointed to the fact that the Legislature’s recent 15-week abortion ban did not include exceptions for rape, incest and human trafficking, despite her pleas on the floor of the Florida Senate and her sharing her own story of being sexually abused.

Related: DeSantis just signed a 15-week abortion ban. Here are 3 things that come next.

“We talked a lot in (the legislative) session about this being a march toward a post-Roe world, and people sort of scoffed at that,” Book said. “We are marching into a post-Roe world, in a time where particularly in Florida, we have a governor and legislative leadership that has a mentality that ‘We can do whatever we want because we can,’ and everything is free except for women.”

Book emphasized that in order to seize the political moment, Democrats need to have a “laser-like focus” on being unified on an issue where they can attract moderates and progressives alike, potentially increasing their numbers in the Legislature.

“I would go so far as to say there are some Republicans out there that believe not having an exemption for rape, incest and human trafficking is abhorrent,” she said.

The rallies and rhetoric Tuesday, however, didn’t always portray a unified party, at least among the candidates jockeying for the Democratic nomination.

Fried and Taddeo held separate, competing rallies, despite the locations being only minutes apart in Miami. Both also made thinly veiled jabs at U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who as a former Republican, has held varying positions on abortion over his political career.

“This is so much bigger than anything we have ever seen,” Taddeo told the attendees of her event. “We need to make sure we elect people … with a record that is very clear as to where they stand.”

In a phone interview, Crist disputed that his record is inconsistent.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist addresses the crowd during a pro-abortion rally organized by state Rep. Michele Rayner and the Pinellas Democratic Progressive Caucus on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown St. Petersburg.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist addresses the crowd during a pro-abortion rally organized by state Rep. Michele Rayner and the Pinellas Democratic Progressive Caucus on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“In 2010, I vetoed a bill — no other candidate can say this — I vetoed a bill that was anti-abortion,” he said referring to a measure that would have required ultrasounds prior to abortion procedures. “What we need to do is stand up for women’s rights and make sure they’re defended.”

Abortion, inflation, education

Ziegler, with the Republican Party of Florida, said Democrats are grasping for any possible voter mobilization after years of disappointing election results and now a massive fundraising gap with DeSantis. Florida’s governor raised more than $100 million by the end of March, a sum unheard of in Florida state politics for a candidate who’s not able to self-fund.

“The influential voters in the middle, the No. 1 issue for them is the economy: gas prices, inflation, how their families are hurting, and education,” Ziegler said. “The issue of abortion, that battle is going to mobilize the fringe left but not the people in the middle.”

Still, Tuesday brought some good news for Democrats: a rush of donations through ActBlue — an online tool used by Democratic campaigns and committees — in the hours following the news of the leaked court opinion, according to CNBC.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the nationwide tally was up to more than $7 million, a hint that the draft opinion had hit a nerve.

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