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Opinion | In Florida, Democrats Hope Abortion Will Revive Their Fortunes

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On the Miami River recently, a parade of gleaming white pleasure boats cruised through the city. Half-naked revelers basked on their decks, swaying to Taylor Swift anthems and waving bottles of champagne as they floated by.

A few yards away, in the windowless conference room of an aging Hyatt hotel, a group of Florida Democrats was far more sober. The state may be known for careless hedonism and family pleasures, but Democrats will be spending the summer working on a very serious and nearly desperate plan to rescue the Florida Democratic Party.

Nikki Fried, the last Democrat elected to statewide office in Florida — over half a decade ago, as agriculture commissioner — dug her heels into the carpeted floor. “It’s going to be women that are going to get us out of this,” Ms. Fried, now Florida’s Democratic Party chair, told a roomful of statehouse candidates, all of them women.

The Democrats had gathered in Miami to plot a comeback in Florida, where they have been largely ousted from power. Central to their efforts is building on anger over the state’s new six-week abortion ban, which is among the most extreme in the country and is opposed by a majority of Florida voters, who have consistently said in polls they wanted more access to reproductive care, not less.

In January, anger over Republican restrictions on abortion in the state led a Democrat, Tom Keen, to flip a state House seat in Orlando. Democrats aren’t pretending they can do the same thing with the state’s presidential vote, which is still likely to go to Donald Trump, but they believe championing reproductive freedom can help them regain a foothold in the statehouse in Tallahassee. They are eyeing a long-term strategy that begins with flipping at least five state House seats this November, unseating a Republican supermajority.

Whether they succeed could offer insight into the limits — or staying power — of Trumpism in American politics.

The Miami conference was hosted by Ruth’s List, a group that recruits, trains and backs female Democratic candidates who support reproductive freedom across the state. In the vanilla-hued conference room, Democratic women (and a handful of men), from party leaders and donors to school board candidates, seethed over a policy that amounts to a near-total ban on abortion in the state.

Democratic strategists and party officials who spoke discussed the best language to use around the issue with voters, repeatedly encouraging candidates to focus on abortion as a matter of freedom. “It’s ‘Government, stay out of the medical room,’” Ms. Fried told the attendees.

A proposed state constitutional amendment that has been placed on the ballot would establish a right to abortion before viability under the state Constitution. That could help the party by increasing Democratic turnout, as a similar ballot initiative did in Michigan in 2022. Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan secretary of state and the event’s keynote speaker, said what worked in her state was linking reproductive freedom to the state’s economic future.

“We consistently tried to say,” she said, that “talented people are going to choose to stay or return to Michigan if they knew they would have access to reproductive care and they would leave if they wouldn’t.”

In Florida the initiative, known as Amendment 4, will have to win the support of at least 60 percent of voters to pass. Daniel A. Smith, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Florida, said many Republicans may vote for the ballot measure but reject Democrats, including President Biden. “Negative partisanship is so strong here,” he said.

Some Democrats questioned whether Florida’s Latino communities had bought into the abortion rights initiative.

“Just translating things into Spanish is not going to resonate with my community,” Maria Revelles, a state House candidate in Central Florida, told the room. She warned Democrats to shift their message with those voters to acknowledge that, for some women, faith and family can have a role to play in decisions about their reproductive health, even as government never should.

At times, the event took on the feel of a pep rally. “When abortion is on the ballot, we win,” Ruth’s List’s chief executive, Christina Diamond, told the crowd over a formal dinner that night, where Democrats raised money for candidates across the state.

Outside the event’s conference room at the hotel, Ruth’s List had set up a kind of art table where younger female candidates were making beaded bracelets with political slogans supporting the cause.

But often the mood among many Democrats over the weekend was one of determined rage. “I don’t want to make a bracelet. I want my rights back,” one woman said near the table.

Despite the righteous anger and grief over the loss of reproductive freedom in Florida, abortion rights alone may not be enough to revive the state’s Democratic Party.

Democrats in the state face significant structural challenges. Republicans enjoy a voter registration advantage of nearly 900,000 and consistently raise far more money, an effect only amplified by the home state presence of some of the country’s most prominent Republicans, including Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis. Unions are under constant attack, hindering their ability to focus on elections. Republicans are making significant inroads with Latino voters beyond their traditional base. The state’s Democratic Party has been plagued by infighting and until recently had struggled to mount efforts to register and organize voters.

“The party itself completely collapsed,” Ms. Fried acknowledged. “The bottom came out.”

The win by Mr. Keen in Central Florida came after a targeted effort by the House Democratic campaign committee increased vote-by-mail registration by 12 points in the district, according to Fentrice Driskell, Florida’s House minority leader. A rising figure in the Democratic Party, she has been traveling as far as Boston trying to persuade donors that Democrats can still win in the state. “Florida is large and expensive,” she said.

And it’s more than that. In many ways, Florida is becoming an experiment in far-right rule. Republicans, led by Mr. DeSantis, are enacting some of the most extreme Republican policies in the country — banning books and limiting the teaching of Black history, restricting critical treatment for transgender Americans, targeting unions, easing gun laws and making it easier to impose the death penalty.

The Republicans are also enacting barriers to political competition and democratic participation. A highly partisan 2022 redistricting plan eliminated a Black-majority congressional district in North Florida. An elections police unit started by Mr. DeSantis in 2022 has arrested Floridians on charges of voter fraud. In 2023, Blaise Ingoglia, a former Republican Party chairman, now a state senator, introduced a bill to abolish the Democratic Party over its support of slavery more than a century ago. Naturally, the bill failed to mention the realignment that took place during the civil rights movement, when the Democratic Party started to embrace Black voters and the Republican Party adopted the so-called Southern strategy, appealing to anti-Black racism to win elections.

“Florida is the South,” Ms. Driskell told me at the Hyatt. “We can’t pretend.”

The following day, I joined Sarah Henry, a 28-year-old Democratic state House candidate in suburban Orlando, as she bounced through an apartment complex in 90-degree heat and greeted wary voters, mostly Democrats, with a cheery smile. She lost to State Representative David Smith, the Republican incumbent, by just over 3,000 votes in 2022. This year the Central Florida seat is considered a prime pickup possibility for Democrats. Top issues include abortion and the price of home insurance, which is rising quickly in Florida.

Jay McFall, 32, who lives in the complex, said he wanted to see abortion rights restored. But it wasn’t the only issue on his mind.

“I’m concerned about the Nazis,” Mr. McFall told Ms. Henry. In September a white supremacist group marched through a local park, waving flags with swastikas on them. “We are everywhere,” they chanted. Mr. McFall, who is white, said he now overhears remarks disparaging Democrats, immigrants and Black people nearly daily. “There’s a widening of hatred,” his partner, Dana Anglada, said, coming to the door.

Elsewhere in the complex, Eli, 30, promised Ms. Henry he would vote for her before he and his partner Lucas, move to Minnesota next year. Both are transgender and Lucas lost access to gender-affirming treatment last year after Republicans barred nurse practitioners from providing hormone therapy. When Ms. Henry invited Eli to volunteer for her campaign, he thanked her. “It means a lot to have someone come out here and want to represent me for who I am,” he said.

At another door, a Black woman who said she “always voted” for Democrats said she was probably staying home this year because she was disgusted that the U.S. was spending taxpayer money to help Israel’s war in Gaza when so many Americans were struggling to make ends meet.

Anger over Republican-backed abortion bans may give Democrats an edge in November. But to build a lasting political coalition, Democrats in Florida and elsewhere may discover that the winning formula is as unglamorous as it is old: Find their voters, all of them. And give them every reason to head to the polls.