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Abortion could dominate the 2024 election in Florida. Will that help Democrats flip the state?

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(WASHINGTON) — For decades, with only a few exceptions, Florida has been one of the most closely fought states in presidential elections — famously helping George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000 by just 537 votes.

Some of the state’s other big races were often just as close. But Florida appeared to be shifting rapidly to the right since 2020, with Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, cruising to reelection by nearly 20 points.

Now, however, as voters gear up for the next presidential election, state Democrats hope to put Florida back in play with the help of abortion access — which will be put directly before voters on the same November ballot with President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump,

“Our agenda, our coalition, and the unique dynamics this election presents make it clear: President Biden is in a stronger position to win Florida this cycle than he was in 2020,” Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, wrote in a memo in early April, underscoring the cautious optimism among some in her party.

Rodriguez and other Biden aides have made this pitch: Floridians have rejected “MAGA politics” since the 2022 midterms and Biden is in a good position to “assemble a winning coalition” of key voter groups in the state: seniors, Hispanic voters, Black voters and voters who previously supported GOP candidate Nikki Haley over Trump in the 2024 primary.

Beyond abortion, Rodriguez singled out issues like the cost of living, health care access and welfare programs like Social Security.

“Make no mistake: Florida is not an easy state to win,” she wrote in her memo, in part, “but it is a winnable one.”

Recent history, including DeSantis’ big win in 2022 and Trump’s back-to-back victories in 2016 and 2020, undercuts that, observers say. DeSantis also signed the state’s 15-week and six-week abortion bans and was embraced by voters.

But those races were all held either before or just after the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative-leaning majority overruled Roe v. Wade. Since then, 21 states have banned or severely restricted access to abortion — including Florida, where the six-week restriction, with some exceptions, is set to take effect at the end of this month.

In the two years after Roe was reversed, a number of red and blue states have also put abortion-related ballot initiatives before voters. Abortion access has won in each case, from California to Kentucky, Kansas to Maine, Ohio to Vermont.

Florida voters are set to cast votes in November on their own abortion ballot question, which would amend the state’s constitution and guarantee broader access to the procedure.

National and state Democrats welcomed the news early this month that the Florida Supreme Court would allow the abortion ballot initiative to appear on the state’s ballot this year, with many arguing, including Biden’s campaign, that that will boost voter turnout and enthusiasm for pro-abortion rights candidates and favor Democrats, as it has elsewhere.

Biden will travel to Tampa, Florida on Tuesday to give a speech on reproductive rights exactly one week before the state’s six-week abortion ban kicks in.

But Florida Democrats are also aware of the uphill battle ahead of them in November. Of the nearly 13.5 million people registered to vote in the state, 5.2 million are registered as Republicans, while 4.3 million are registered as Democrats, a difference of about 900,000 voters, according to the state’s website.

After decades of Democrats holding an official edge with voter registration in the state, that flipped starting in 2021.

There are also 3.5 million voters in the state who are not registered with either major party.

Evan Power, the chair of the Florida GOP, contended that abortion isn’t the issue to tip the state in the opposing party’s favor.

“Democrats made [abortion] the No. 1 issue that they ran in on in Florida in 2022 and we won by 19% of the votes,” Power told ABC News.

Referring to the six-week ban, he said, “This is what the voters sent their legislators to Tallahassee to deliver on and they did deliver on it. So I don’t think there’s a backlash coming in at all.”

Florida Democrats still insist that the state is “winnable” this election cycle, telling ABC News that the abortion ballot initiative is energizing voters.

“We were already seeing momentum in Florida before this ruling and, look, I think that the reality is, as the Biden campaign says, Florida is winnable and that this puts us on the map for the rest of the nation,” Florida Democratic Party spokesperson Andrew Feldman said.

Both the Biden campaign and state Democrats have cited some special and local elections since 2022 as evidence that Florida remains competitive, like in decades past.

Last May, Democrats flipped Jacksonville’s mayoral office for the first time in 30 years when former TV news anchor Donna Deegan, who was endorsed by abortion advocates, defeated Daniel Davis, the CEO of the JAX Chamber pro-business group.

Still, Florida Republicans say they have made vast gains in the state over the past few years, thanks to the support of voters, which will be difficult for Democrats to overcome.

DeSantis has been perhaps the biggest winner of the GOP’s ascendancy in state. He defeated former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist by double digits two years ago, a few months after the Roe ruling.

However, some others call the 2022 midterms in Florida an “outlier” when anticipating how close the state could be in the 2024 general election.

Justin Sayfie, a government relations consultant at Power Partners and former spokesperson for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, said that he believes DeSantis’ resounding victory in 2022 came from those who supported his COVID-19 policies in keeping the state open during the pandemic.

With the virus now largely faded from public view, Sayfie said that won’t be a significant factor in how people vote this year — and so the proposed abortion amendment on Florida’s ballot will grab more attention and make the presidential election more competitive than it would have otherwise.

He cited the last four elections: two in which Barack Obama won; two in which Trump won.

“Donald Trump’s victory in 2020 was only by 3 points, so I think Florida is a competitive state,” Sayfie said. “And having reproductive rights on the ballot … is a net plus for Democrats.”

Feldman, with the state Democrats, argued that the 2022 midterm elections were also an anomaly and that Florida’s Democratic Party was less organized than it is now.

“We’re the first people to say it; we were not in the game,” Feldman said. “We did not have an operation that did what Democrats do best in terms of turning out voters, in terms of coordinating, and we are getting back to a time now in Florida where we were in [during the] Obama years.”

In an interview, 538 senior elections analyst and senior editor Nathaniel Rakich said Florida is in the range of winnability for Democrats but that the state is “slightly Republican-leaning.”

With Biden doing well in fundraising for his reelection campaign, Rakich said it’s not crazy for the president to put in effort in Florida, noting Biden’s relatively small margin of defeat in the state in 2020 and that what partly contributed to the so-called red wave there in 2022 was low Democratic turnout.

“I think people just have poor political memories and then look at 2022 and 2020 in Florida and they say, ‘Oh that the state is gone,"” Rakich said. “But sometimes, you know, states kind of go off on little tangents in their political journey — but then they kind of come back to the main road.”

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