Sen. Tim Scott on Wednesday successfully pinned down Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the first time on whether he would support a 15-week federal abortion ban.
“Yes, I will,” DeSantis replied to Scott in a moment lost in the crosstalk that engulfed the messy Republican primary debate.
It’s a commitment DeSantis has avoided making since entering the presidential race – which has at times drawn him sharp criticism from a top anti-abortion group. DeSantis instead has campaigned on the six-week abortion ban he signed in Florida earlier this year while suggesting other states may have different approaches based on their political environments.
But with his window closing to gain ground in the GOP presidential nominating contest, DeSantis has made abortion a focal point of his efforts to drive a wedge between former President Donald Trump and the conservative base, particularly in Iowa.
The exchange with Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, came shortly after DeSantis said Trump should be on the debate stage defending his comments that some Republican states have pursued “terrible” restrictions on the procedure. Scott jumped in to press DeSantis, saying, “But would you support (inaudible) a 15-week limit?”
Off camera, DeSantis affirmed he would, as one of the moderators asked former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a new question. The little-noticed exchange was first reported by the Daily Signal, a conservative outlet.
DeSantis signaled a willingness to back a federal ban in a recent interview on Radio Iowa, telling the host: “I’ve said this from the beginning of this, as president, you put pro-life legislation on my desk, I’m going to look favorably and support the legislation.”
But Wednesday’s response to Scott marked the first time DeSantis weighed in so directly on a 15-week ban.
As DeSantis doubles-down on anti-abortion policies, Trump has instead said he is willing to compromise with Democrats on abortion to find “peace on that issue.” Trump has privately blamed the GOP’s recent electoral defeats on the party’s anti-abortion push following the fall of Roe v. Wade. He recently called Florida’s ban “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” a remark that DeSantis has seized on as he seeks to win over evangelical and anti-abortion voters in Iowa.
On the debate stage, DeSantis said: “I reject this idea that pro-lifers are to blame for midterm defeats.”
Although he has accused Trump of prioritizing politics over the unborn, DeSantis over the years has also carefully navigated the topic, indicating his own political expediency around a sensitive issue.
For much of his first term as governor, for example, DeSantis declined to push for a crackdown on abortion despite an overwhelming GOP majority in both chambers of his state legislature, leaving in place an existing law that made Florida one of the most permissive states for the procedure in the southeast.
In 2022, DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban that did not include exceptions for rape and incest. But two months later, as the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, DeSantis was uncharacteristically reserved in his response and declined for months to say whether he would push for more restrictions on abortion as he ran for a second term as Florida governor.
Just before launching a campaign for president, DeSantis – in the middle of the night and behind closed doors – signed a law to ban abortion in Florida after six weeks with limited exceptions for rape and incest. After jumping into the race, he repeatedly declined to back signing similar legislation at the federal level, saying it was up to states to lead.
His persistent dodging earned a blistering rebuke over the summer from Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
“A pro-life president has a duty to protect the lives of all Americans,” she said. “He should be the National Defender of Life.”
DeSantis defended himself from the criticism, telling CNN in New Hampshire: “Different groups, you know, are gonna have different agendas, but I can tell you this: Nobody running has actually delivered pro-life protections. I have done that. I’ve stood up. I’ve said that I would stand for life, and we have done that, and we have delivered, and we’re proud of that.”
In an interview that aired Friday, DeSantis distanced himself slightly from the six-week abortion restriction he signed into law, calling it “a legislative issue.”
“It’s a legislative issue. So they have to figure out what they think, and so the legislature identified the moment where there’s a detectable heartbeat as the time where there’s legal protections,” DeSantis said on “Real Time with Bill Maher.” “Now they did provide exceptions for all the difficult cases that you hear about, but basically once there’s a heartbeat, it shouldn’t be used as a form of birth control.”
Scott has made it a priority to push candidates to back a 15-week abortion ban, telling Fox News last week, “We have to learn to stand up for our rights and make sure every single child in every single state has the same rights.”
“All the presidential candidates, whether it is Ron, Nikki (Haley), the former president, they should support me with a 15-week limit,” Scott said.
“Ron had months to advocate for a federal limit, yet discouraged efforts to protect life. If you’re going to back down on an issue, this is the one to do it on. Glad Ron is now on board,” Scott communications director Nathan Brand said in a statement Thursday.
This story has been updated with additional developments.