Will new abortion restrictions, long-sought goal of conservatives, produce a political backlash and help Democrats in 2022 elections?

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As Republicans signaled months ago that 2022 would be the year they’d impose new restrictions on abortion access in Florida, Democrats had a warning: Limiting access would produce a political backlash, and a torrent of enraged voters would punish the GOP in this year’s elections.

Now, with Florida about to enact a ban on abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, many Democrats and abortion-rights activists are resigned to a different reality. Any negative reaction may amount to little more than a political ripple.

Even as they’re unable to stop the restrictions from become law — pending a final vote in the Republican-controlled Florida Senate and a signature from Gov. Ron DeSantis, both of which are all-but-guaranteed — abortion-rights proponents aren’t ready to give up and say they’ll take the issue to the voters.

“When people lose their rights, often a lot of people want to take action,” said Laura Goodhue of Palm Beach County, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, citing what many on her side of the issue often raise: “A whole generation of young people who don’t know what it’s like not to have their rights to bodily autonomy when they see their rights taken away that’s when you’re going to see more outrage.”

One sign, she said, is hundreds of Planned Parenthood supporters who have traveled to Tallahassee to show their opposition to the coming restrictions.

People gather at the Old School Square in Delray Beach for an Oct. 2, 2021, event protesting laws restricting access to abortions.

People gather at the Old School Square in Delray Beach for an Oct. 2, 2021, event protesting laws restricting access to abortions. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Melissa Shiff also sees a potential backlash.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but from what I’m hearing, people are not happy. I don’t just talk to Democrats. I’m not just in my little bubble,” said Shiff, president of the North Broward Democratic Club, founder of Florida Women for Biden/Harris, and advisory board member at Ruth’s List Florida, which recruits and trains women who are abortion-rights supporters to run for office.

But Kathryn DePalo-Gould, a political scientist at Florida International University, said the notion that abortion restrictions will translate into Republicans getting voted out of office “wishful thinking.”

Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, former Democratic Party leader in both the Florida Senate and Florida House, and state Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, also don’t see it happening.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a game changer for elections,” LaMarca said.

The legislation (House Bill 5) on the verge of becoming law would ban abortions in Florida after the 15th week of pregnancy.

The measure does not allow exemptions in the case of rape or incest, but abortions would be allowed in cases in which a “fatal fetal abnormality” would “result in death upon birth or immediately thereafter” or if an abortion is needed to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert serious bodily injury.

Abortion in Florida is currently legal until the 24th week of pregnancy.

The 15-week restriction is modeled after a Mississippi law that is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the coming months could give states approval to restrict, or even eliminate, legal abortions by reversing or scaling back the 1973 Roe vs. Wade opinion that established a constitutional right to the procedure.

The pending Florida law is one of a trio of hot-button cultural issues that Republicans who control Florida government have advanced in the 2022 session.

The others would limit the way sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in schools (House Bill 1557) and restrict discussions of race and racism in schools and employee training programs (House Bill 7). Opponents have dubbed the first the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Supporters have labeled the second the “Stop WOKE” measure.

“There is a real culture war going on, and the younger generation is going to continue to fight back against these oppressive laws,” Goodhue said.

“That’s where you’re going to see a backlash. I think it is all connected. It’s not in a vacuum,” she said. “I think anger turns people out at the ballot box. I do think there will be accountability.”

There is a deep divide between Republicans and Democrats on the issues, which political analysts call — for obvious reasons — wedge issues.

The abortion limits, for example, passed the Florida House of Representatives with “yes” votes from 77 Republicans and one Democrat and “no” votes from 38 Democrats and one Republican.

They’re mirroring public opinion. A Feb. 22 University of North Florida poll found 71% of Democrats disapprove of an abortion ban after 15 weeks, while 57% of Republicans approve. (Among no party affiliation/independent/minor party voters, 62% disapproved.)

The restrictions on discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity passed the House with “yes” votes from 68 Republicans and one Democrat and “no” votes from 40 Democrats and seven Republicans.

Anti-abortion protesters line up along University Drive just north of Hollywood Boulevard during a November 2017 protest.

Anti-abortion protesters line up along University Drive just north of Hollywood Boulevard during a November 2017 protest. (Mike Stocker / Sun Sentinel)

The UNF Public Opinion Research Lab poll found 64% of Democrats disapprove and 54% of Republicans approve of the measure. (No party affiliation/independent/minor party voter were divided roughly evenly.)

LaMarca, the only Republican state legislator with a district entirely in Broward County, voted for the abortion restrictions but against the limits on discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

In January, Democratic elected officials and abortion-rights supporters — including three South Florida congresswomen — warned that Republicans would face a backlash as people realized what they’d done, especially from young female voters who have never known a time in which abortion services weren’t readily available.

Republicans dismiss the threat. “Democrats know that the only way to get any attention in Florida is to pander to the far left of their party and cry injustice where none exists,” Julia Friedland, Florida spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee said by email, adding a touch of sarcasm: “We wish them luck, it’s worked so well in cycles past.”

And DePalo-Gould said there are several reasons, many intertwined, why it’s exceedingly unlikely to work in 2022.

Not at forefront: Voters are focused on major, broad issues, such as the economy and inflation, and potential fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Put bluntly, most people don’t pay much attention to what’s emanating from the state Legislature in Tallahassee, and are unlikely to get riled up about it.

“People are still turning to national issues, and they’re not going to say, ‘What did the Legislature do?’”

Midterm election: During mid-term elections between presidential contests, the party that holds the White House often suffers losses. And with people increasingly frustrated over the long Covid pandemic and Biden’s popularity sinking, Democrats are running into strong headwinds.

“The polls are very clear: people do not like the direction of Biden and the Democrats right now,” DePalo-Gould said.

Florida trend: As the state’s population continues to grow, both parties are increasing their numbers, but Republican voter registrations are increasing faster than Democrats. In October, Republicans surpassed Democrats for the first time in modern Florida history.

“We lean Republican in this state, if even ever so slightly,” DePalo-Gould said.

Salient message: After two years of the Covid pandemic, campaigns have shown an advantage when they talk about things like mask mandates in schools and parental control, DePalo-Gould said.

She pointed to the Republican victory last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, a state had been trending Democratic, and the February recall of three school board members in overwhelmingly Democratic San Francisco. “Republicans have realized if you talk about parents, and parental control and parental rights, that is playing very well across the country,” DePalo-Gould said.

Young voters: Election after election brings Democratic predications that they’ll induce enough young voters to turn out to influence elections. It rarely happens.

“Young people don’t tend to vote and every time we think they will, they don’t. Will this mobilize the kind of progressive, young left? Yes. Are they significant enough to overturn a statewide election in Florida? No.” DePalo-Gould said.

Suzy Feldman joins other protesters at the Old School Square in Delray Beach for an Oct. 2, 2021, event protesting laws restricting abortion.

Suzy Feldman joins other protesters at the Old School Square in Delray Beach for an Oct. 2, 2021, event protesting laws restricting abortion. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Election-year controversy

Controversial issues used to be kept on the back burner during election years to avoid turning off voters. Majority party strategists preferred not to take on those kinds of subjects in the leadup to an election season.

Current-era political thinking has shifted away from trying to win elections by reaching out to moderate centrist voters. In today’s polarized world, in which voters are holed up in their partisan fortresses, candidates rely more on ginning up enthusiasm from voters in their party’s bases and getting those people actually turning out at the polls.

That approach also serves the long-term political interests of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Beyond winning re-election this year, he wants to burnish his appeal to Republican Party base voters outside Florida. He’ll need their support in primaries for a widely expected candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

“Election years there were less controversial bills,” said state Sen. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach County Democrat first elected to the Legislature in 2010. “But we have someone [DeSantis] who has his eyes on running for the presidency, and this is becoming more of a norm in the state of Florida.”

Democrats have raised the specter of a rollback of abortion rights in previous election cycles, and it hasn’t made much, if any, difference.

“We said this when it was [Donald] Trump versus Hillary [Clinton], and they didn’t turn out. People knew what we were fighting for. Young women. Old women. Everybody knew,” Smith said.

Sean Foreman, a Barry University political scientist, said such issues should, in theory, help Democrats turn out new voters — but don’t.

“Where were they in 2016 for Hillary Clinton? Where were they in 2018 when you knew which side of the issue DeSantis would be on?” Foreman said. “Democrats have untapped potential in the electorate every cycle that they get excited thinking they can untap, but they haven’t found the keys yet.”

As much as abortion-rights supporters are outraged over the new restrictions, the way they’ve evolved may help mute any political response.

In September, Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said it would be “worthwhile to take a look” at a Texas law banning abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy to see if it should be implemented in Florida.

At six weeks, many women don’t know they’re pregnant. And the Texas law empowers anyone to sue anyone else who in any way provides any kind of help to a woman seeking an abortion after that point, even a ride-share driver who takes someone to have the procedure.

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Instead, she said, Republicans pursued the Mississippi-style ban on abortions after 15 weeks — making them appear less draconian.

Last year, 68,449 abortions were reported to the state. Agency for Health care Administration statistics cited in a legislative staff analysis said 94% were during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The state said 76% were elective procedures.

A total of 105 were to end pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest.

“Had they done a Texas-style six-week I would have anticipated a pretty significant backlash.” Berman said. “I think they are using the 15 weeks and portraying it as moderate even though its’ really not, so they can market that to voters.”

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