Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to sign a six-week abortion ban isn’t the first time he's moved to the right of Donald Trump. But it could be the riskiest.
Allies of the former president are already hitting DeSantis from both sides. The governor could face backlash from primary voters who view him as a compromise candidate.
And even Republican pollsters and strategists say it could be devastating for DeSantis in a general election, because whether he likes it or not, the six-week ban is now his.
“This will get hung around his neck,” said Republican strategist Sarah Longwell, who regularly holds focus groups with voters and is not affiliated with any presidential hopeful.
“The country isn’t there,” Arizona GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin, who is undecided in the 2024 race but open to DeSantis, said of the six-week ban.
The bill landed on DeSantis’ desk just as the GOP reaches an inflection point on the issue of abortion, having suffered setbacks during last year’s midterm elections and, more recently, decisively losing a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat at a time when the question of abortion and overturning a restrictive statewide ban hung in the balance.
NBC News spoke with two dozen analysts, pollsters, strategists and campaign aides about the six-week abortion ban, and they painted a precarious picture of how DeSantis will need to navigate political landmines up ahead.
In many ways, this bill was a lose-lose situation for the governor. If he didn't sign it, he would alienate conservatives he needs to defeat Trump in the 2024 GOP primary, should he decide to run. But by signing it, he risks turning off more independent voters and reigniting an issue that has so far been a loser for the party in general elections.
Ron DeSantis quietly signs 6-week abortion ban into law in FloridaApril 14, 202302:11
“This is the very issue that draws him back and doesn’t give him the opportunity to get a significant portion of Republican women and independent voters,” Coughlin said. “To win, you need all your Republicans, you need women and you need some Blue Dog Democrats. I just don’t see how this helps him.”
There are signs that DeSantis was attempting to limit the blast radius of his decision to sign the measure. He signed the legislation late Thursday night — around 11 p.m. — with little fanfare, a notable shift from when he signed the 15-week abortion ban last year at a Spanish-speaking church amid scheduled speeches and a protracted ceremony.
DeSantis also did not address the abortion legislation at his stops in Ohio on Thursday, even as he was promoting all his accomplishments in Florida.
And notably, at an appearance at the conservative Liberty University in Virginia on Friday, the school's new chancellor Jonathan Falwell referred to the legislation in his introduction of DeSantis, but the governor himself did not mention it in front of what likely would have been a receptive audience.
The Florida law bans abortions at six weeks but creates new exemptions for rape and incest up to 15 weeks into the pregnancy. After that, a pregnancy can be terminated only if the mother’s life is at risk or there is a fatal fetal abnormality.
Recent polling shows the ban is not popular among Florida residents of either political party. A University of North Florida poll in March found 75% of those queried said they either somewhat or strongly oppose the six-week ban. That included 61% of Republicans.
"He's trying to have it both ways," Longwell said. "[He] wants to be able to tell base voters he signed the strictest abortion law and doesn't want a lot of swing voters to know about it."
DeSantis' allies have pushed back on the idea that he was trying to hide anything, noting that he rushed back from Ohio. One person with knowledge of his thinking said the governor wanted to sign the measure as soon as possible.
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council who attended the bill signing, said he was told about the ceremony 24 hours earlier — before the state House had passed the measure — and that it had been scheduled to start slightly earlier, around 9:30 p.m., but supporters awaited DeSantis’ arrival from Ohio.
Still, even the original plan at night was not exactly at a time for a big public splash. Stemberger speculated the timing could have in part been designed to avoid “the craziness of the protesters,” who had descended on the Capitol in recent days.
To Stemberger, the DeSantis decision was a “big deal” and the right decision in the state of Florida for a potential White House candidacy.
“It helps him because it’s good public policy. He’s possibly a presidential candidate, this is a huge issue in the Republican Party,” he said, adding that in his view, the general election will also turn to a discussion on immigration, transgender issues and the economy. “A lot of issues are going to play out in the general election, state by state … I think this is a huge issue — but it’s not going to be a dispositive issue.”
It didn’t take long for Trump's supporters to tee off on DeSantis, hitting him from both sides.
“Maybe DeSantis isn’t running for president after all — signing a six-week abortion ban means he has no chance of being elected to the White House,” said one Trump ally who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
Another criticized DeSantis for taking too long to sign the six-week ban.
“There were 82,000 abortions in Florida last year. That’s 82,000 lives Ron DeSantis failed to save,” said Alex Bruesewitz, a GOP consultant and avid Trump supporter. “Florida has become the abortion destination of the South.”
As of Friday, Trump himself had not weighed in.
DeSantis' allies are also shooting criticism right back at Trump world.
“As Governor Ron DeSantis’ signing historic legislation protecting innocent babies with heartbeats, Trump is dispatching his allies to attack America’s most accomplished, pro-life governor,” Erin Perrine, spokeswoman to the Never Back Down PAC, which supports DeSantis, said in a statement to NBC News. “Sadly, it appears Trump is backing down and aborting his 2020 position because he’s lost the will to fight for anything but himself.”
The spokesperson suggested that the most damaging statement for the anti-abortion movement in recent memory was a 2016 comment from Trump when he said he believed “there has to be some form of punishment” for women after an abortion. He later backed away from the statement.
Charles Franklin, an independent pollster in Wisconsin, said DeSantis' position could hurt him in the all-important, vote-rich counties outside of Milwaukee — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties, often referred to as the WOW counties. Those areas were decisive in the recent losses of a conservative Supreme Court candidate and a Republican gubernatorial candidate, he said.
"Based on all the various things we've asked about abortion, I'm pretty confident that the WOW counties would prefer a 15-week ban to a six-week ban," Franklin said.
Earlier this month, Jon Schweppe, policy director of the socially conservative American Principles Project, sounded the alarm on GOP’s lack of messaging on abortion, calling it “do or die time” in a Twitter thread.
But in an interview, Schweppe called the six-week ban an “exciting opportunity” for DeSantis, not an obstacle, as long as DeSantis hits back at the left for wanting too liberal laws on abortion.
“DeSantis has really built a reputation as this conservative fighter who’s taken on all the culture war issues," Schweppe said. "And abortion is the last puzzle piece to that identity before he runs."