A Culture Warrior Goes Quiet: DeSantis Dodges Questions on Abortion Plans

When the Supreme Court erased the constitutional right to an abortion last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was among the many Republicans who celebrated. “The prayers of millions have been answered,” he tweeted.

But while other Republican leaders vowed to charge ahead with new restrictions — or near-total bans — Mr. DeSantis offered only a vague promise to “work to expand pro-life protections.”

More than two weeks later, he has yet to explain what that means.

Mr. DeSantis, a favorite among those Republicans who want to move on from the Trump era, is rarely a reluctant partisan warrior. But his hesitance to detail his plans for abortion policy reflects the new and, in some states, difficult political terrain for Republicans in the post-Roe v. Wade era, as Democrats grasp for advantage on the issue in an otherwise largely hostile midterm election year.

In April, Mr. DeSantis signed a law barring abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, bringing the state’s limit down from 24 weeks. But with Roe overturned, some on the right now see a 15-week ban as insufficient, and other Republican governors, particularly in Southern states, have pushed for more aggressive restrictions.

Mr. DeSantis has described fetuses in the womb as “unborn babies.” Yet he has largely avoided specifying what other restrictions he might endorse. When a state representative filed legislation last year seeking a six-week ban, the governor would not support or oppose it. “I have a 100 percent pro-life record,” he said instead.

Now, campaigning for a second term as governor, Mr. DeSantis is coming under intense pressure from powerful parts of the G.O.P. base to further curb abortions in Florida — the most populous state with a Republican governor where abortions are still fairly widely available.

Yet doing so could undermine Mr. DeSantis’s efforts to recruit residents and businesses to his state and complicate his re-election campaign, not to mention his national ambitions, because polls show that a majority of Floridians, and of Americans, want to keep most abortions legal. In a New York Times/Siena College poll this week, U.S. voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, or 61 percent to 29 percent, said they opposed the Supreme Court’s decision.

That leaves Mr. DeSantis in an unfamiliar position: on the sidelines on a major cultural-political issue. Though he has spoken about wanting to prevent abortions from taking place late in pregnancy — a far less controversial stance than pushing for an outright ban — he has said nothing about calling a special session to enact additional restrictions, as anti-abortion activists hope he will.

And Republicans nationally have noticed his hesitancy so far.

“This is a guy who jumps into the culture wars when he thinks he can make a point,” said Mike DuHaime, who managed Rudolph W. Giuliani’s presidential campaign in 2008 and was a top adviser to Chris Christie’s in 2016.

Mr. DeSantis is not the only Republican governor whose supporters expect more from him now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. But few have as much at stake: Mr. DeSantis’s next move could not only affect his re-election in Florida but also complicate a presidential bid.

Mr. DeSantis was the most popular alternative to Donald J. Trump among Republican primary voters when they were asked about potential 2024 presidential candidates, according to the Times/Siena poll. Mr. DeSantis trailed Mr. Trump 49 percent to 25 percent, but was favored over the former president by younger Republicans, those with a college degree and those who said they voted for President Biden in 2020.

The poll showed that Mr. DeSantis was still relatively unknown, with about one-fourth of Republicans saying they didn’t know enough to have an opinion about him. But he was well liked among those who did. Among white evangelical voters, 54 percent said they had a favorable opinion of the Florida governor while just 15 percent said they had an unfavorable view of him.

And abortion opponents are not shy about pressing Mr. DeSantis for bold new action.

“There’s an enormous expectation,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian group. “I think he realizes this is something that has to be dealt with.”

A spokesman for Mr. DeSantis’s office would only refer to a previous statement when asked whether a special session of the legislature — or any other move related to abortion — was in the offing.

Mr. DeSantis signed the new 15-week abortion ban to great fanfare in April.

“This will represent the most significant protections for life that have been enacted in this state in a generation,” he said at the time, accusing the “far left” of “taking the position that babies can be aborted up to the ninth month.”

“We will not let that happen in the State of Florida,” he vowed.

The new law, which took effect July 1, was briefly blocked by a state judge, but that ruling was placed on hold pending appeal, leaving the 15-week ban in place. Mr. DeSantis’s administration wants the Florida Supreme Court to uphold the new law.

Doing so would require reversing 30 years of legal precedent asserting that a privacy provision in the State Constitution applies to abortion. But the seven-member court, which for decades pushed back against some of the more ambitious policies enacted by Republican governors and lawmakers, is now made up entirely of conservative justices appointed by Republican governors, including three appointed by Mr. DeSantis.

Mr. Stemberger predicted that if, as expected, the court allows the 15-week ban to stand, lawmakers will move to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — either during a special session after the November election or in the next regular legislative session in March.

State Senator Kelli Stargel, the Lakeland Republican who sponsored the 15-week abortion ban, said lawmakers would undoubtedly face pressure to do more, especially if women from other states with newly tightened restrictions started coming to Florida for abortions.

“Hearing that people are going to be traveling into Florida is very disturbing to me and I’m sure very disturbing to others,” said Ms. Stargel, who is reaching her term limit and is running for Congress.

Even as the Florida law was being debated, some anti-abortion activists described it as merely a first step; others explicitly told lawmakers it did not go far enough in restricting the procedure. In May, after a draft of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe was published, Florida abortion opponents pushed for a complete ban to be taken up in one of the Legislature’s special sessions.

State Representative Anna V. Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, said she expected Republicans to file proposals for a six-week abortion ban and for a complete ban next year, as well as for new restrictions on medical abortions, in which prescription drugs are used to end a pregnancy. The fact that medical abortion was defined for the first time in this year’s law suggests to Ms. Eskamani that such abortions could be regulated in the future.

Ms. Eskamani noted that Mr. DeSantis’s statement after Roe was overturned was “pretty watered-down.”

“It’s clear that he knows this is politically unpopular,” she said. “It’s also a wake-up call for Democratic voters.”

Mr. DeSantis has widely been expected to win re-election by a comfortable margin, which could bolster his standing in a crowded Republican presidential primary field for 2024.

But a large margin of victory is not assured.

Representative Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, are competing in the Democratic primary for governor. Public polling of the general election is scant; the most recent credible surveys are from earlier this year and show Mr. DeSantis with a healthy lead over Mr. Crist. Mr. DeSantis’s popularity in the state has grown since last year. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll of likely voters in January showed Mr. DeSantis leading Mr. Crist by six points and leading Ms. Fried by 11.

At least one poll has shown a prospective race between Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Crist as tight. That private survey, taken last month by the veteran pollster Tony Fabrizio, who often works for former President Donald J. Trump and has frequently worked in Florida, showed Mr. DeSantis as the slight favorite in a competitive race, running just three points ahead of Mr. Crist. That survey was of registered voters, which can be less predictive than one of likely voters.

Races for governor in Florida have been close in recent years as politics have become more polarized. In 2014, then-Gov. Rick Scott barely eked out a victory over Mr. Crist. In 2018, Mr. DeSantis won by a narrow margin over the Democrat, Andrew Gillum, who was recently indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges.

And Mr. DeSantis is one of the most polarizing and overtly partisan statewide elected Republicans in the country — taking on Disney after it criticized a bill limiting what schools can teach about sexual and gender identity, denouncing Covid-19 vaccines for young children and opening up several fronts in the broader Republican battle against critical race theory.

Some anti-abortion activists appeared willing to give Mr. DeSantis room to maneuver politically.

“Ron DeSantis is one of the best governors in the country, and I believe that he will work to pass the most conservative bill he can possibly get through the Legislature,” said Penny Nance, chief executive and president of Concerned Women for America, which calls itself the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization. She said she supported a six-week abortion ban in Florida.

“There are no concerns or reservations about his pro-life convictions,” said Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “And for that reason, I think he’s going to have running room to make his own decision when it comes to taking the next steps with legislation to protect unborn children.”

With abortion a topic of fresh intensity among conservatives positioning themselves to run for president — some of whom, like former Vice President Mike Pence, want to see bans in every state — Mr. DeSantis faces pressure from the right both in Florida and beyond.

As even his admirers are reminding him.

Andrew Shirvell, founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, described Mr. DeSantis as “a tremendous ally for the pro-life movement,” but expressed some impatience with his silence on abortion since the Supreme Court’s decision.

“It is frustrating that the governor doesn’t speak out more about this,” he said. “But I attribute that to other pressures going on just months before the election.”

Still, to hear Mr. Shirvell tell it, Mr. DeSantis will eventually need to press for further action on abortion in Tallahassee. “It’s really up to the governor to twist the arms of the legislative leaders if he’s got presidential ambitions,” he said.

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