New Florida legislation making abortions more difficult to obtain could become a lynchpin issue in the Charlie Crist-Rick Scott race for governor.
Already, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and state Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, have joined forces in an attempt to use the proposed new abortion restrictions as a way to rejuvenate their party’s long-running charge that Republicans are engaged in a war on women.
And they’re aiming squarely at Scott, the Republican governor running for re-election.
“It’s clear that Florida Republicans want to follow the misguided leadership of Governor Scott and take their extremism a step further by restricting the right of Florida women to make their own health care decisions,” Wasserman Schultz said during a recent conference call with reporters.
Berman said the “real intent” of Scott-led Republicans is to “turn back the clock” and limit women’s ability to get access to abortions.
When Democrats push the so-called war on women, it infuriates establishment Republicans and social conservatives. “If you want to talk about a war on women, what about the war on women in the womb,” said Tami Donnally, a Lake Worth Republican activist.
“The real war on women and war on children is abortion,” said Jannique Stewart, of Coconut Creek, the founder of Love Protects, a Christian ministry that believes in a biblical approach to sexuality, and strongly opposes abortion.
The Florida legislation, House Bill 1047, redefines the viability of a fetus to reduce the number of abortions. Current law bans most abortions after 24 weeks, the start of the third trimester; the new legislation could move that up to 20 weeks.
Also, a woman could not seek a late-term abortion unless two doctors certified in writing that it was necessary to save her life or to avoid irreversible physical impairment. And it would eliminate abortions based on the emotional health of the pregnant woman.
The Legislature passed the proposal last month. Anti-abortion activists expect Scott — who was honored last year as a “champion” by Florida Right to Life — will approve the measure, something that would please social conservatives in the Republican Party.
“I’m obviously pro-life. I believe life begins at conception,” Donnally said. “I appreciate anything the governor signs to help move us in that direction,” Donnally said.
That’s exactly the point, in the view of U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents most of coastal Palm Beach County and parts of Broward County. She said the latest Florida measure is one more step in a coordinated Republican effort to keep an important part of its base happy.
“We’re actually very happy to see what happened with this bill,” Stewart said.
For their part, the Democrats would love to turn the Florida governor’s race into a replay of last year’s election in Virginia, where abortion played a big role in Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s 48 percent to 45 percent victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
After a barrage of TV ads from Democrats and their allies pushing the message that the Republican would roll back their rights to abortion and birth control, exit polls showed McAuliffe won 51 percent of women’s votes to the Cuccinelli’s 42 percent.
The public’s overall impressions of Scott and Crist, the condition of the state’s economy and voters’ views of President Barack Obama will be the biggest factors in November, said Berman and Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter.
But if the race stays tight, an issue like abortion could influence the outcome even if it only generates interest in a relatively small number of voters.
“It’s not going to motivate a huge number of people, but it can motivate some pockets,” said Daryl Glenney, a Palm Beach communications, marketing and political consultant. If Glenney were working for Crist, she said she’d search for the pockets of Democratic-leaning voters who care about the issue “because I wouldn’t want to take the chance that they just wouldn’t vote.”
It could also help motivate millennial voters, aged 18 to 31.
“This is an issue that can motivate young people to come turn out,” said Harstad Strategic Research pollster Michael Kulisheck — if a candidate or party can sell it in a way that’s relevant to millennials’ lives.
Nearly 7 in 10 millennials don’t want government involved in abortion decisions, according to polling this spring for the Youth Engagement Fund and Project New America.
Crist’s position on abortion isn’t completely clear. The fact-checking website PolitiFact found that, “Overall, he’s been all over the map on the issue, calling himself both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ in the past.”
Crist was elected governor as a Republican in 2006, ran for U.S. Senate as a no party/independent candidate in 2010, and is seeking the Democratic nomination to run for his old job this year.
And a Scott signature on the abortion restrictions could help Crist if Democrats who are still lukewarm about him need a reason to support him over the Republican governor in November.
He is far ahead of his primary opponent, former Florida Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston – a longtime supporter of abortion rights – in polls and fundraising.
Rich’s strongest supporters, many of whom are liberal women, are among the Democrats who Glenney said have “been suspicious of Crist, not necessarily convinced by his conversion on the road to Damascus.”