MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 17: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at the University of Miami Health System Don Soffer Clinical Research Center on May 17, 2022 in Miami, Florida. The governor held the press conference to announce that the state of Florida would be providing $100 million for Florida's cancer research centers, after he signs the state budget into law. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
'He's ready': Journalist on how DeSantis could replace Trump as face of GOP
04:37 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

As Republicans across the country move swiftly to restrict abortion access in their states after last week’s US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has so far shown little desire to match their urgency.

Instead, the typically outspoken GOP governor quietly celebrated the ruling that there is no longer a federal constitutional right to an abortion with a statement on Twitter that offered a vague promise to “expand pro-life protections,” a commitment that has left advocates on both sides of the abortion debate guessing what the hard-charging DeSantis will do next.

For DeSantis, the decision of how far to push the state on abortion is likely to complicate not just his immediate future as he seeks reelection this fall, but also his long-term political ambitions. DeSantis is widely considered a prime contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, for which he’ll need to court a far more conservative electorate than the voters he’ll face in November.

How DeSantis navigates these aspirations has implications for women and families far beyond Florida’s borders. Florida’s 55 abortion clinics have long welcomed women from surrounding states in the South where it has become increasingly difficult over the years to legally get the procedure.

“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety about what’s to come,” said Laura Goodhue, the vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida. “It’s a real health care crisis that’s going to have ripple effects.”

DeSantis this year already signed the most restrictive abortion law in modern Florida history, a 15-week ban that does not include exceptions for women who become pregnant as a result of rape, incest or human trafficking. A Leon County circuit court judge on Thursday ruled that the law is unconstitutional and “violates the privacy provision of the Florida Constitution.” DeSantis said the state will appeal the ruling, but Florida, for now, is more permissive than many of its neighbors, where so-called trigger laws – bans designed to take effect with the overturning of Roe v. Wade – and bans no longer in legal limbo are quickly halting access to the procedure.

The anti-abortion Florida Voice for the Unborn and at least one state Republican lawmaker have called on DeSantis to bring state legislators back to Tallahassee for a special session to further curb abortion, or perhaps even ban it outright. Even as the measure passed and DeSantis held a celebratory bill signing in April at an Orlando-area church, many anti-abortion activists felt the 15-week ban didn’t go far enough. About 75,000 of the 80,000 abortions reported by the state in 2021 came during the first trimester, meaning the vast majority of procedures will still be allowed under the new state law, which was originally scheduled to go into effect Friday. Historically, Florida ranks among the states with the most abortions per capita annually, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican who has been at the forefront of the legislature’s anti-abortion push, said GOP lawmakers will look to DeSantis for its next steps.

“His leadership is essential on this,” Baxley said.

DeSantis, though, has sought to temper expectations in the weeks since a draft of the Supreme Court decision leaked in early May, citing the ongoing legal fight over Florida’s new abortion restrictions.

“Our future legislative action necessarily depends on the resolution of these legal issues,” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in a statement to CNN. “We are in continuous contact with the legislature as this litigation proceeds, and we look forward to future policy plans to defend the unborn.”

Whatever DeSantis decides, Democrats have little power to stop it. Republicans control the state House and Senate with healthy majorities, and DeSantis, known for dictating his party’s legislative agenda, could call them back to Tallahassee at any time, including after the election.

Republicans “own the game, they created the board and they make the rules,” state Senate Democratic leader Lauren Book said.

A court shaped by DeSantis

DeSantis’ greatest impact on the future of abortion in the state of Florida may have already been felt.

Much like former President Donald Trump, DeSantis, as a candidate in 2018, recognized the conservative base’s focus on Supreme Court politics. He worked to convince Republican voters that there was a similar fight to be had over Florida’s high court, where justices serve six-year terms and can seek retention by voters until they’re 75.

“The next governor in all likelihood is going to have three appointments to our state Supreme Court, which is a historically liberal court. They’re activists. They legislate from the bench,” DeSantis said during a GOP primary debate in 2018 hosted by Fox. “I can tell you this: I am best positioned to identify those candidates for nomination to the state Supreme Court who are going to apply the law faithfully and will not be judicial activists.”

Within a year of taking office, DeSantis dramatically had reshaped the state’s seven-member court, appointing three conservative judges to replace two jurists named to the bench by Democrat Lawton Chiles and a moderate nominated by Republican Jeb Bush. This year, the departure of another justice will give DeSantis a fourth chance to further his influence on the state Supreme Court. Like Trump, DeSantis culled his picks from the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization that advocates a textualist and originalist reading of the US Constitution.

“It’s an enormous influence,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian organization that opposes abortion. “The court is not just four or eight years. You’re talking about 20 to 30 years out. I think that it’s a very significant, silent but powerful influence that he has into the future.”

This new majority-DeSantis-appointee court will likely soon decide the fate of Florida’s 15-week abortion ban. While similar bans in other states are now protected by last week’s Supreme Court decision, Florida is in a unique situation. Enshrined in its state Constitution is the right to privacy, defined as “the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided herein.” The Florida Supreme Court has for decades held that this privacy clause protects the right of women to get an abortion.

Proponents of abortion rights are not optimistic about their chances before this more conservative court, which has already shown a willingness to overturn precedent set by earlier justices.

“We don’t believe this court will see it the way other courts have,” Book said. “Any piece of protection, that modicum of protection is gone.”

The question is how long it will take for the case to reach the state Supreme Court and for a ruling. It took seven years for the court to decide to uphold a law requiring women wait 24 hours after their initial physician visit to get an abortion.

Dueling political priorities

Democrats, facing an uphill battle this fall to defeat DeSantis and gain state legislative seats, have recast the November election as a referendum on women’s health. Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running for governor, vowed to veto any Republican bill if DeSantis holds a lame-duck special session to push through new abortion restrictions. State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, said on Fox that voters should elect Democrats who will stand between women and Republicans looking to take away abortion access.

“We are not going to sit back idly and just let these different laws across the nation erode our privacy rights,” Fried said. “Women are upset. Women are angry.”

The new dynamics in the race after the elimination of Roe v. Wade present a challenge for DeSantis as he faces Florida voters while also eyeing what comes beyond November. Those close to DeSantis have said that the governor believes a blowout victory in a traditional swing state like Florida is the best way to make a statement entering the 2024 GOP presidential nominating contest. But conventional wisdom suggests the voters he’ll need to achieve a lopsided win in Florida – moderates and suburban women – are also less likely to support sweeping changes to abortion access.

Those expectations will differ from the considerations of Republican voters in early presidential primary and caucus states as they evaluate the GOP field, which may include several of DeSantis’ gubernatorial peers in other states. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds are also considered potential 2024 contenders, and each have gone further than DeSantis to restrict abortion in their states.

“There’s just no doubt that those who are in position to lead, people who will be evaluating their leadership,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a conservative activist in Iowa who has long been an influential voice in the state’s GOP presidential nominating contest. “And there’s no doubt, in these primaries where you’re trying to get principled conservatives, you’re splitting hairs to say, ‘I went further to protect the sanctity of life.’”

“It comes down to whether people believe the consistency of their convictions when it comes to the sanctity of life,” Vander Plaats added.

DeSantis in the past vowed to support legislation to cease abortions after a heartbeat could be detected – similar to bans signed by Abbott and Reynolds. Stemberger said he expects that is the legislative route DeSantis and Republicans will pursue when they decide to act, though he wasn’t sure when that would be.

Baxley said he doesn’t see a need to push ahead and wants state lawmakers to deliberately consider not just abortion restrictions but ways to improve pregnancy outcomes.

“This is such a big turning point, we want to make sure we get this right,” Baxley said.

Asked if Republicans should give law enforcement more power to punish women who seek abortions out of state or people or companies that assist them, Baxley said, “Everything is on the table. We have a great opportunity to change this direction, but all of those ideas need to be explored.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.