TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Prominent Orlando trial attorney John Morgan could be considered the kingmaker of Democratic-focused ballot initiatives, having poured millions of dollars of his own money into successfully getting medical marijuana and a minimum wage increase passed.
But when it comes to the push in Florida that aims to create a right to abortion up to at least 24 weeks of pregnancy — and undo the state’s 6-week ban — Morgan said he’s not getting involved.
“I am pro-choice but this is not my fight,” he said via email when he was asked if he would come out of retirement from funding ballot initiatives.
Morgan encapsulates the problems Florida Democrats and activists face with the current abortion initiative. They want to protect access to abortion, but are struggling to fund the initiative and gather enough signatures by Feb. 1 to qualify to get it on the ballot.
Despite abortion rights advocates this week notching huge wins in state elections — including voters in conservative-leaning Ohio passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to abortions — activists in Florida can’t seem to capture the same level of urgency and excitement, even with crucial deadlines looming.
The stakes are especially high for abortion rights since thousands of people from outside the state come to Florida, which has fewer restrictions on the procedure than neighboring states like Alabama.
Floridians Protecting Freedom, the main group organizing the initiative, has raised almost $9 million as of the end of September, though the group says it’s taken in at least $12 million (which will be reflected in the next fundraising report). The vast majority of the other contributions were from people who gave between $1 and $250,000. But the group’s leaders say 80 percent of the contributions came from in-state donors — sparking worries that big donors from out-of-state and national groups are dismissing Florida.
By comparison, Ohio’s Issue 1, the initiative enshrining abortion rights in that state’s Constitution, raised more than $28 million, including close to $13 million from groups based in New York, Washington, D.C., and even Tulsa, Okla.
Floridians Protecting Freedom has also gathered about 500,000 valid signatures, far short of the state’s threshold of more than 891,000 needed in less than three months to qualify. If it gets on the ballot, it would need 60 percent of voter approval to pass.
The closer a campaign gets to the deadline, the costlier it is to find petition gatherers who can help fill a last-minute gap in voter signatures.
“You not only need to get the correct number of signatures but you need to get about 20 percent more because so many are invalid,” Morgan said. “The later you are, the more expensive signatures are.”
In 2016, Morgan spent $8 million of his own money toward the successful ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana. Four years later, he gave $5 million to help raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour via another initiative.
Ballot initiatives became more expensive after the Legislature tightened restrictions on petition gathering and voter signature verification. For instance, a campaign to put recreational marijuana legalization on next year’s ballot spent more than $39 million, mostly to gather the required signatures. Morgan’s 2016 medical marijuana campaign spent close to $14 million, state records show.
But Anna Hochkammer, executive director of the coalition organizing the abortion rights ballot initiative, said Tuesday’s win in GOP-led Ohio has already given momentum to the Florida campaign. Florida, like Ohio, leans Republican but she said the Ohio initiative was approved with bipartisan support despite opposing political positions on abortion.
“The reason why Ohio’s result is really giving some wind underneath our waves down here in Florida is not only did you have a conservative state with a well-funded Republican infrastructure,” Hochkammer said, “you're starting to see voting patterns that this is not a particularly partisan issue — it's a bipartisan issue.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year, support for abortion has emerged as a bipartisan issue. Voters sided with abortion rights in five states that held direct votes over the last year on abortion rights, including in Republican-leaning Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky.
Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s GOP-led Legislature approved a 15-week abortion ban without exceptions for rape or incest a few months before the high court dismantled Roe. And this year, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Republican lawmakers, who hold supermajorities in the Legislature, passed a six-week ban on abortions.
Both laws are being challenged and the state high court is deciding their fate.
But DeSantis didn’t face a backlash during his reelection last year and instead won by historic margins, including in traditionally blue counties like Miami-Dade.
And as a presidential candidate, DeSantis has moderated his stance on abortion, in no small part because influential Republicans questioned electability after he signed the six-week ban.
During Wednesday’s presidential debate in Miami, DeSantis said anti-abortion groups need to do a better job fighting back when moderators asked about the election results in Ohio and other states.
“Of all the stuff that's happened to the pro-life cause, they have been caught flat-footed on these referenda,” DeSantis said. “A lot of the people who are voting for the referenda are Republicans who would vote for a Republican candidate.”
Hochkammer said that group has scored some big contributions, including more than $1.1 million from a Palm Beach philanthropist and a $500,000 check from the New York-based Open Society Fund. She added that since Tuesday’s election, Florida donors have been making larger contributions. Though Morgan still has held off.
“We’re talking about people who were adding five zeros are now adding six,” Hockhammer said. “The focus is now coming to Florida.”