Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis discussed abortion only briefly during a lengthy address Saturday night at a gala for the most prominent antiabortion group in his state — the latest instance of the soon-to-be presidential candidate declining to more aggressively promote his recent move to further restrict the procedure in his state.
DeSantis gave a 40-minute keynote speech Saturday night at an annual dinner for the Florida Family Policy Council, a major advocate for Florida’s new ban on almost all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. That law, which DeSantis signed with little fanfare this spring, was a massive victory for the social conservatives DeSantis is courting heading into 2024 — but some Republicans worry he’s gone too far to the right on an issue that could hurt them in the general election.
“We believe that everybody counts, everybody is special — and our Heartbeat Protection Act shows that we say what we mean and we mean what we say,” DeSantis said at the gala in Orlando, using the official title of the six-week ban. He called it “a landmark piece of legislation for this state” and said “there’s much more to do.”
After spending roughly 20 seconds on abortion restrictions, DeSantis then spent roughly two minutes discussing more general efforts to support fathers and mothers, especially single mothers, before moving on to “family friendly” tax policy and other staples of his political speeches, according to an audio recording of his remarks at the event, which was open to the press.
The comments come as DeSantis and other Republicans are facing pressure from their base to tighten abortion laws while also encountering concerns from some political strategists, donors and others in the party that they will pay a political price for embracing strict bans. Many Democrats found success in the midterms running on a platform of protecting abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling that ended the constitutional right to abortion.
DeSantis also declined to tout the 6-week ban in an April speech at Liberty University, a deeply conservative evangelical institution, which came just after he’d approved the bill in a late night closed-door signing.
DeSantis allies believe his strict stance on abortion will help distinguish him from former president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination. The governor mentioned Florida’s abortion ban this month at a speech in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation GOP caucus state where some prominent evangelical leaders have rebuked Trump as insufficiently conservative on the issue. And in a news conference on Tuesday, DeSantis pushed back on Trump’s assessment that many in the “pro-life movement” view Florida’s six-week ban as “too harsh.”
“I was proud to do it,” DeSantis said of signing the ban. Trump, he added, “won’t answer whether he would sign it or not.”
But Saturday’s dinner provided more evidence that DeSantis is still treading cautiously with the issue, even before staunchly supportive audiences.
Representatives for the governor and his political team did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
The governor got a hero’s welcome at the gala, received with live bagpipes and standing ovations. The president of the Florida Family Policy Council, John Stemberger, said more than 700 guests packed the ballroom as DeSantis was presented the “William Wilberforce” award, named for a British politician who worked to abolish the slave trade.
DeSantis plans to officially enter the presidential race this week and begin formal fundraising as donors and “bundlers” — people who raise money from their larger networks — gather at a Four Seasons in Miami. Previewing his presidential pitch in speeches around the country this spring, he has focused heavily on his legislative achievements in Florida — “where woke goes to die,” he likes to say.
He repeated that line at the gala.
“When freedom and our very way of life in so many other jurisdictions in this country withered on the vine, we in Florida held the line,” he said.
DeSantis has yet to take a stance on a national abortion ban as some antiabortion groups nationwide push 2024 candidates to embrace some federal restrictions. Democrats have already made abortion a key focus of their attacks on declared and likely GOP candidates.
At the state level, some GOP legislators have backed off near-total bans and are finding more success with bans allow most abortions to continue, such as the 12-week limits passed last week by Republicans in Nebraska and North Carolina. Democrats still decry those laws as extreme.