Biden’s making a play for North Carolina and Florida. Republicans will have to defend themselves

Florida and North Carolina have eluded Democrats for years. But they think abortion rights might change their fortune

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Thursday 02 May 2024 21:40 BST
Kamala Harris blasts Republican ‘extremists’ who ‘don’t know how a woman’s body works’.
Kamala Harris blasts Republican ‘extremists’ who ‘don’t know how a woman’s body works’. (Reuters)

On Thursday, President Biden made his way to Wilmington, North Carolina, also making a stop in Charlotte to visit the families of police officers killed in the line of duty. Biden’s trip comes shortly after Vice President Kamala Harris visited Charlotte last month. In fact, both have made multiple journeys down to North Carolina this year.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the vice president visited Jacksonville, Florida on the day that the state’s six-week abortion ban came into effect. Harris, as Inside Washington has written before, can zero in on abortion rights in ways that Biden, an 81-year-old Catholic man, cannot. And indeed, Harris delivered some scorching lines against Florida Republicans, saying “extremist” Republican lawmakers who voted in the ban “either don’t know how a woman’s body works, or simply don’t care.”

The president continues to poll badly, even in states that he won in 2020 such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada. So why the focus on tough-to-win states like North Carolina and Florida?

Florida has become a Republican citadel in the past decade, with its governor Ron DeSantis winning re-election by almost 20 points in 2022. That’s a far cry from when Barack Obama and Biden won it twice and when it had Democratic Senators like Bill Nelson and the late Bob Graham.

And North Carolina has proven even more elusive than Florida. After Barack Obama pulled off a miracle in 2008 and became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to win the state, it’s taken a hard-right turn. Mitt Romney won North Carolina in 2012, Donald Trump won it twice, and Democrats have not won any of the four Senate races since 2008.

But Democrats think that the fallout from the 2022 Dobbs v Jackson decision that overturned abortion rights may well have put both states in play.

Florida is by far the tougher climb. The state barely voted for Trump in 2016. But increased migration from retirees seeking the state’s warm weather and zero income taxes, combined with an influx of migrants from countries with socialist governments like Venezuela and the rightward shift of the existing Hispanic population, has turned Florida into a laboratory for right-wing politics.

Nevertheless, Nikki Fried, the Florida Democratic Party chairwoman, told my colleague John Bowden that she and other Democrats believe the draconian abortion ban, as well as a ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights in the state, can turn everything around. Specifically, she said she would focus on the “three As: affordability, accountability and abortion” while campaigning this year.

Democrats have already had some success: they flipped the mayorship of Jacksonville last year, which is no mean feat.

Biden and the party feel they have a better shot in North Carolina. In recent years, as my colleague Ariana Baio reported, North Carolina has seen an influx of people move to the state. But unlike in Florida, North Carolina has seen mostly college-educated young professionals move in — mostly to the Charlotte area or the Research Triangle, which includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and many of the state’s elite universities. These are the types who typically vote Democratic.

Like in Florida, Democrats are banking on abortion rights turning the state from Wolf Pack Red to Tar Heel blue. When I spoke to the state’s governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat who won both times Trump was on the ballot, he noted how he fears that Republicans might go further than the state’s 12-week abortion ban.

“There's an effective ban in the entire southeast now that we have the Florida situation, and obviously North Carolina has a 12-week ban, but it's very burdensome on women because of the requirement of an in-person appointment before you can get the healthcare that you need,” he told me at the time.

Democrats also hope that Mark Robinson — the Republican nominee for governor who has peddled in notoriously xenophobic rhetoric — might not only help Democrat Josh Stein win the governorship but help carry Biden over the finish line in a buzzer-beater worthy of March Madness.

Yet, Democrats are not oblivious, even if they are optimistic.

“I'm not gonna say [abortion] is going to flip the state because there's going be a lot of Republicans who vote for [the ballot initiative to enshrine abortion rights] too,” Representative Maxwell Frost, the progressive Gen-Z Democrat from Florida told me.

Senator Marco Rubio outright dismissed the efforts from Harris and others to turn Florida blue.

“I think some of the problems [are] wildly exaggerated, but it's part of a very heated debate around the country,” he told me. “[Harris is] running for office, and I think this is going to give them an advantage but they're going to lose Florida by a lot.”

Senator Ted Budd of North Carolina said he was sure North Carolina would stay red.

“He’s wasted the last three and a half years and he’s going to waste a trip to North Carolina,” he told me, when I asked about Biden’s trip to the state this week.

Republicans may say that they are sure Biden and Harris aren’t a threat in North Carolina and Florida. But the fact that Democrats see a clear opportunity means their opponents may be forced to spend campaign funds in defense, whether they like it or not.

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