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Why Ron DeSantis is avoiding talking about abortion

The Florida governor has 2024 calculations in mind — and fear of a backlash.
Image: Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a campaign event for Adam Laxalt, a Republican Senate candidate from Nevada, on April 27.Ronda Churchill / Getty Images file

Republicans across the country are rushing to craft new state laws restricting or banning abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But one of the most prominent members of their party has been conspicuously missing in action: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

After the June 24 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization invalidated the constitutional right to abortion access, DeSantis pledged in a statement to "expand pro-life protections." But he hasn’t specified how or when. The simplest explanation for his reticence is that tricky strategic dilemmas are leading him to drag his feet and remain quiet on the issue for now. DeSantis is a leading 2024 presidential hopeful, and his hesitation reflects Republican fears of an outsize Democratic backlash and underscores how the right doesn’t have a unified vision of how far to take its anti-abortion crusade.

DeSantis' hesitation reflects Republican fears of an outsize Democratic backlash.

As the Tallahassee Democrat reports, DeSantis appears reluctant to talk about what kind of anti-abortion laws he wants to see. He hasn’t spoken about the issue publicly, and he hasn’t taken questions from reporters at recent events. Asked whether DeSantis still supports so-called fetal heartbeat legislation, which would outlaw abortion after around six weeks of pregnancy — which he backed while running for governor in 2018 — his spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, declined to respond affirmatively or negatively. According to the newspaper, she said, “We very much look forward to pursuing additional legislative protections for the unborn.” And while the anti-abortion advocacy group Florida Voice for the Unborn and at least one Republican state representative have called for DeSantis to call a special legislative session for a new anti-abortion law, so far he has refused.

The DeSantis administration has said it’s first awaiting the outcome of a legal challenge to an anti-abortion law the governor signed earlier this year before the Supreme Court torpedoed Roe v. Wade. That law prohibits abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and was considered a win for the right in Florida. But given that in 2019 nearly all abortions in the state took place within 13 weeks, it’s not restrictive enough for hard-core anti-abortion activists. In a post-Roe legal environment, they want DeSantis to immediately call for far more extreme restrictions, and they know he is well-positioned to do it given that he is popular in his state and Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature.

But DeSantis seems to be stalling. His first concern right now is getting re-elected this fall, and the larger the margin, the more strongly he can make the case that he should lead the Republican Party in 2024. His concerns aren't just about mobilizing Republicans in his state — they also include avoiding a Democratic backlash to an abortion ban or a near-ban.

Florida has grown redder in recent years — Donald Trump now lives in Florida for a reason — and DeSantis helped brand the state as an anti-Covid-lockdown haven. But it isn't a deep shade of red. Last year was the first year registered Republicans have ever outnumbered registered Democrats in the state, and until recently Florida was considered the quintessential swing state. Republicans by no means have a lock on every Florida race going forward if Democratic voters are particularly fired up.

Moreover, Florida’s Republicans may be acutely vulnerable to a backlash on abortion. The state historically has been far more permissive of abortions than its Southern neighbors, and it has had some of the highest per capita abortion rates in the country. If abortion is banned or heavily restricted in Florida, the impact will be far more greatly felt than in deeply red states where abortion was already heavily restricted even before Roe v. Wade was overturned.

DeSantis knows this, and he could be waiting to see what happens in other states and how abortion rights activists mobilize in Florida. If he leans too hard into pleasing the most extreme anti-abortion segments of his base, he could jeopardize his likely re-election.

On top of all this, DeSantis is likely thinking about how whatever position he takes could shape his trajectory in 2024. He has to think of not only his current constituency in Florida, but also the national Republican base and, theoretically, a general election contest. The key for him is to balance the base against a general election audience and to not take a position that requires him to backtrack later and render himself vulnerable to accusations of opportunism or flip-flopping.

The Republican Party always seems to be on the offensive these days. But on abortion, the party isn’t so sure-footed. Some of its savvier operators have correctly detected that the overturning of Roe v. Wade has evoked new levels of rage on the left and that the right's gains could unravel if it overplays its hand.