Florida Democrats warn Biden against politicizing abortion ballot effort

Florida Democrats, fearing politicization will sink a November ballot measure protecting abortion, are warning President Joe Biden’s campaign not to alienate Republicans.

Already, the Biden campaign declared Florida “winnable,” launched digital ads in Florida showing Donald Trump bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade and held a call with reporters to put the former president on the spot over the issue. All of it could push away GOP voters crucial to passing the initiative to protect abortion.

“I wish they hadn’t,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who previously worked for Planned Parenthood, said of the various efforts the Biden campaign was now putting into Florida.

“I would expect them to support the initiative, but letting locals lead on this is smart,” she added, saying that she was concerned using the issue to boost Democratic candidates — instead of creating a “multi-partisan effort” — would result in abortion remaining largely illegal in Florida.

The campaign to put abortion access on the ballot, which is led by the Floridians Protecting Freedom committee, reached the state’s threshold of more than 891,000 state-certified voter signatures at the end of last year. After the Florida Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the ballot initiative can go before voters in November, the campaign has essentially six months to drum up support — 60 percent of voters must approve it for it to pass. They have to do it in a state where Republicans out-registered Democrats by almost 900,000 voters.

And for supporters, the stakes are incredibly high. While the Supreme Court determined that voters will have a say in protecting abortion, the court also upheld a 15-week abortion ban that will trigger a nearly all-out ban starting May 1.

Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, who’s involved with organizing the abortion ballot campaign, said that while the measure seems like a big opportunity for Democrats to win other races on the ballot, many of the roughly 1 million voters who signed petitions in support of the initiative were Republican.

“This language was supported by Republicans and independents,” Book said. “While it’s deeply political, I had Republican women alongside me collecting petitions because they believe the Legislature went too far.”

Some Democrats acknowledge they have to delicately balance the issue, not just for electoral survival but to keep abortion legal. During a press conference with Democrats in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, U.S. House Democrats stressed how important it was for the issue to be apolitical — though they warned repeatedly that electing Trump in November, coupled with a GOP majority in Congress, would result in a nationwide abortion ban. (Trump’s campaign has said he wants states to decide the issue.)

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) predicted the amendment would pass thanks to a broad coalition of voters and added that Democrats would “encourage them to also vote for candidates that support” abortion rights. She warned in a brief interview with POLITICO that without electing a strong slate of Democratic lawmakers, anti-abortion lawmakers would seek to gut the abortion amendment against the will of voters.

“We’re going to be able to show voters: These are people that wanted to interfere with your personal private health care decisions,” she said. “They did it and they will do it again, even if you decide that we have abortion rights in our Constitution.”

Lauren Brenzel, director of the abortion campaign for the referendum, called Yes on 4, said the push to enshrine abortion protections in the state Constitution shouldn’t be conflated with political races.

“We are focused on making clear to voters the decision at stake: Should the government get to make these decisions for doctors and women, or not?” Brenzel wrote in a text. “Floridians of every party, including Republicans, do not want politicians making these decisions for them.”

Though the Biden campaign is playing up Florida this week, the extent of its investment in the state remains murky. Part of the strategy may be to only talk about Florida frequently enough to force the lesser-funded Trump campaign to spend in the state, rather than embark on a sincere, all-out bid trying to win it in November.

And while the Biden campaign put out a new digital ad on abortion in Florida, campaign officials haven’t said how much they’re spending on the ad, only that the money came out of a $30 million overall that it’s spending on ads in battleground states this spring.

The campaign also announced a state team in Florida last week, though Trump appointed a Florida director last summer. Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez didn’t specifically address whether the president would ramp up his trips to Florida now, when asked about it directly by a reporter on Tuesday.

“We are clear-eyed about how hard it will be to win Florida,” she said, “but we also know Trump does not have it in the bag.”

Laura Goodhue, the executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates and a member of Floridians Protecting Freedom, said even without cash, droves of women from both parties turned out in support after more restrictive abortion bans were signed into law. Floridians Protecting Freedom raised roughly $16 million by the end of the year as it turned in the last of its voter signatures to county elections supervisors. A separate ballot initiative seeking to legalize marijuana spent $39 million to achieve similar results.

Goodhue said she hoped that kind of support would continue through November as Planned Parenthood helps with abortion access across the Southeast. Until the six-week ban takes effect, Florida will remain a bastion for women seeking an abortion from neighboring states with tighter restrictions.

“There’s a focus on the South, period, and there’s a focus on the underserved,” Goodhue said. “We have to preserve access in Florida.”

On the plus side for state Democrats, they feel the attention to the issue from national Democrats could bring about badly needed cash to help carry the campaign, Book said. White House staffers initially warned the ballot initiative wouldn’t survive Florida’s conservative climate, she added.

“We had folks within the White House telling us, ‘We don’t want you carrying the water on this because we don’t believe this is going to happen,’” Book said. “Here we are today and I know that the Biden campaign has made a commitment and those resources are coming.”

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