Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, abortion was a key litmus test for Republican presidential hopefuls, and many made it the centerpiece of their campaigns in order to win over Christian right influencers and voters who decide Republican primaries. But now Republicans are realizing they need to hoodwink the general electorate. Their response since the court's ruling has been extreme and horrifying, as state lawmakers enact strict bans with few exceptions. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who until recently has been eager to flaunt his anti-abortion credentials, is the latest entrant to the race to duck the issue on the national stage. But it’s important to remember how closely intertwined anti-abortion organizations are with the governor and his allies.
DeSantis was set to formally announce his candidacy Wednesday night with Twitter owner Elon Musk — not to an admiring Christian right or anti-abortion audience. His announcement video, shared moments before the event started, did not mention abortion. And because the event embarrassingly crashed for most of the people listening, he only had an opportunity to briefly make his announcement to a smaller audience. Again, abortion was absent.
Pro-lifers are a distinct minority, though — a fact not lost on DeSantis or other Republican candidates.
As governor, DeSantis has been a fervent promoter of abortion bans. Last year, two months before the court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, DeSantis signed into law a ban on abortion at 15 weeks of gestation, modeled on the Mississippi law at issue in Dobbs. The signing ceremony was packed with anti-abortion activists and religious figures. DeSantis shared a 45-minute video of the jubilant event on social media. He crowed about his achievement, saying he was “proud to sign this great piece of legislation which represents the most significant protections for life in the state’s modern history.”
As the 2024 presidential race came into view, though, DeSantis became more circumspect. Last month, he signed a six-week ban passed by the Florida Legislature late at night, behind closed doors, and then issued a more tepid statement. “I applaud the Legislature for passing the Heartbeat Protection Act that expands pro-life protections and provides additional resources for young mothers and families,” he said. (The six-week ban will go into effect only if the conservative state Supreme Court upholds the already draconian 15-week ban.) Since at six weeks many people do not even yet know they are pregnant, these so-called “heartbeat” bills represent an almost total ban on abortion.
When even Donald Trump chided DeSantis that these bans are “too harsh,” DeSantis retorted that they are “something that almost 99% of pro-lifers support.” Those pro-lifers are a distinct minority, though — a fact not lost on DeSantis or other Republican candidates. “Overall, around six-in-ten Americans say abortion should be legal in all (27%) or most (35%) cases, while 36% say it should be illegal in all (9%) or most (27%) cases,” reports the Pew Research Center. Enthusiasm for banning abortion does not resonate beyond white evangelicals and the minority of Catholics and other Christians who are overrepresented in GOP primaries, but make up a small segment of the population. Seventy-five percent of white evangelicals, the core of the Republican base, believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to Pew data, compared to just 38% of Catholics and just 36% of the general public. And statewide elections in Kansas and Wisconsin have sent an unmistakable signal that voters are furious about the Dobbs ruling and the ensuing Republican zealotry to outlaw abortion nationwide.
Political reporters have picked up on DeSantis’ recent reticence to tout his anti-abortion record, even to friendly audiences like the Florida Family Policy Council, a powerful Christian right advocacy group affiliated with Focus on the Family, and which has close ties to the state GOP. This past weekend, the organization gave DeSantis, who delivered the keynote address at its annual gala, its “highest award ... in recognition of his contributions,” including the abortion ban. John Stemberger, the group’s president, said that DeSantis was someone who was “providentially raised up by God, to lead through unique challenges.” Other groups like the FFPC are also aware of and grateful for DeSantis’ record. When DeSantis announced his candidacy Wednesday, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America praised his record of "going on offense ... to defeat pro-abortion extremists."
Those relationships hold notwithstanding what he might or might not say to voters. Any Republican, no matter what they say or don’t say on the campaign trail, will be beholden to the powerful Christian right groups that are pressing for the most extreme positions. Even if the presidential candidates evade getting nailed down on their actual abortion positions, if they win office, they’ll have difficulty resisting that pressure.
By speaking to a group of Christian broadcasters, DeSantis outsourced the work of amplifying his message.
This is the needle DeSantis is threading now, and the general electorate should be aware of it. This week he welcomed the National Religious Broadcasters annual convention to Orlando with an effusive speech in which he called Supreme Court justices Samuel Alito (who authored Dobbs) and Clarence Thomas “the gold standard for jurisprudence," and speculated that the next president could have the opportunity to nominate replacements for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is 69, and Chief Justice John Roberts, 66. He called on supporters to “put on the full armor of God,” a regular feature of DeSantis speeches invoking themes of Christians engaged in “spiritual warfare” against demonic forces. He kept his more explicitly anti-abortion comments brief, but included an obvious swipe at Trump. “When we are acting to protect an unborn child that has a detectable heartbeat, that is humane, that isn’t harsh, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
By speaking to a group of Christian broadcasters, DeSantis outsourced the work of amplifying his message and reassuring the base. The speech earned him plaudits, for example, from the influential evangelical preacher Franklin Graham, who sat for a photo op with the governor. Graham wrote on Facebook that he appreciated that “he takes a stand against the evil that is trying to overtake our culture,” a catch-all acknowledgement of DeSantis’ dedication to the cause.
DeSantis’ tight lips on abortion as he formally enters the presidential race should not obscure his extreme positions and actions. His record, along with his promotion of it to friendly audiences, is the only accurate way to assess his views. All of that shows he is avidly joining the rush of Republican state legislatures to drastically crack down on and even eliminate abortion access.
The Christian right devoted decades of activism to overturn Roe in order to give them the legal tools to try to outlaw abortion across the country. Allies like DeSantis have no intention of stopping now, even if it takes disingenuous sleights of hand in the hope that general election voters won’t notice. For reasons both political and moral, Democrats must hammer that reality home.