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News brief: Florida primary, Ukraine nuclear power plant worker, abortion laws

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

States holding primaries today include the state of Florida, one of the biggest.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And the primary captures even more attention because of who's on the ballot there. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is seeking a second term. He's made himself one of his party's national figures, fighting culture wars and showing up in 2024 presidential polls. But before he could run for that office, he would have to win reelection as governor. And Democrats are choosing his challenger today. Charlie Crist is a former governor and also a former Republican.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I remember when we had a governor who knew his job was to look out for our jobs.

CHARLIE CRIST: I remember that governor, too, 'cause that governor was me.

INSKEEP: Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says she is more progressive.

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NIKKI FRIED: Want to know the difference between me and Charlie Crist? It's not just that I'm pro-choice and he's pro-life. Look at our records on criminal justice.

MARTIN: OK, so a former Republican and a progressive Democrat. For more on this race, we're joined by Insider's Kimberly Leonard. Kimberly, thanks for joining us this morning.

KIMBERLY LEONARD: Good morning.

MARTIN: How do things look down there?

LEONARD: You know, polls show that Congressman Crist is expected to win the Democratic nomination for governor today. He's actually a former Republican and political independent, but he's positioned himself as a unifier in this race. It's kind of similar to how Joe Biden did when he successfully ran for president. Crist's message really seems to be resonating against DeSantis, someone a lot of people view as divisive. Now, having said that, if Fried does pull off an upset victory today, then she could be on track to become Florida's first female governor. She's a lifelong Democrat, and she's consistently supported abortion rights, and that's an issue that can mobilize voters in a post-Roe America.

MARTIN: Interesting that the polling is so clear before people actually go out there and fill out their ballots. So I know this race has also been especially expensive, right? What can you tell us about campaign spending?

LEONARD: That's right. Well, you know, DeSantis is one of the most famous Republicans in America right now, and that's helped him pull in big-dollar donors from all over the country. Just to put the numbers in perspective - he raised $142 million from the beginning of 2021 until early August. And that's an astounding amount of money, especially for a governor's race. He could even set a new national record when it comes to this kind of fundraising.

MARTIN: But, I mean, let's assume that Crist does well and faces DeSantis. I mean, how well-positioned is he in a general election? I mean, sure, he used to be a Republican, but he's still running as a Democrat, and Florida has been considered a swing state for a long time, but, I mean, isn't that changing? Isn't it solidly red these days?

LEONARD: You know, it is, and it has changed in a very short amount of time. For example, if you look at 2018, DeSantis only won the governor's race by about 32,000 votes. That's less than half a percentage point. Looking ahead to November, analysts really are predicting that he could sail to victory. We're talking even by double digits. And that's something that really just hasn't happened in Florida. But one of the main reasons why they think there's such a difference now is because Republicans have really been out-registering Democrats. And at this point, they have 231,000 more Republican votes. And so if you talk to analysts down here in Florida, they'll really tell you, yes, Florida is a red state now.

MARTIN: There are new voting laws in Florida. What can you tell us about them?

LEONARD: That's right. There are several new voting restrictions in Florida. There's the voter absentee rules which require voters to request ballots every election. That's instead of what it was before, where they could request one for two election cycles. And then there was an election police unit that last week announced it was arresting 20 people who fraudulently voted during the last election. But to put that in context, 11 million people in Florida voted during the last election. So critics point out that having only 20 fraudulent votes compared to those numbers show that voter fraud is very rare.

MARTIN: Insider's Kimberly Leonard. Thank you.

LEONARD: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: International inspectors have not been able to secure a nuclear power plant occupied by Russian troops. It is still in a battle zone.

INSKEEP: We've seen images of this plant since the start of the war in Ukraine. Russian soldiers, you may recall, fought their way in. They're now defending that area as Ukrainian troops push back. During all of that time, the plant has been operating. Civilians go to work there every day.

MARTIN: NPR's Ashley Westerman talked to a former employee of the nuclear power plant who worked there for months after Russians took it over, and she joins us now. Ashley, introduce us to this person.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Yeah, So I spoke with 32-year-old Andriy Tuz. He's a 10-year veteran at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and has done a number of jobs throughout the years. But last year he got an offer to join the PR team as deputy, and he said yes. And then he actually became head of PR on February 24. And he says everything changed on March 3, when Russian tanks started rolling through the plant's checkpoints.

MARTIN: And he was there, right?

WESTERMAN: Yes or, rather, he was home in Enerhodar, which is the village closest to the plant. The village was attacked on March 3 and then the plant that night.

ANDRIY TUZ: (Through interpreter) There was shooting. Not only the tanks were shooting, I also saw some incoming missiles above the city. Heard explosions that sounded just like the crackle of fireworks.

WESTERMAN: And there were dozens of military vehicles about, and Tuz says many of the plant's buildings were hit by gunfire that night. And while it was scary, he and others who worked there actually figured they were in the safest place because they couldn't imagine either side attacking the area.

MARTIN: Wow. I can't imagine the stress of that. I mean, what did he tell you about working at the plant?

WESTERMAN: Tuz says that in the first days, even the first months, the Russians did not interfere in their work. They weren't allowed in their workplace or to approach the staff. But then things changed.

TUZ: (Through interpreter) Russian soldiers started making the rounds and were forcing their way to the workplaces of the Ukrainian staff.

WESTERMAN: He says it's not like they were interfering in the day-to-day operations, Rachel, but just having those soldiers around had a big psychological impact on the workers and their families. It's just a big emotional upheaval. And he says the plant went from some 11,500 personnel before the war down to 1,200 to 1,800 now, which has put even more pressure on those who have decided to stay.

MARTIN: Yeah, I imagine. Has any of this affected the actual operation of the plant?

WESTERMAN: So the plant, he says, has been running. The water stayed on, but there is no internet and very, very little phone service. But what's most problematic is that the Russians have also parked and moved a lot of military equipment and munitions in or near the complex.

TUZ: (Through interpreter) Tanks and military vehicles were also constantly moving. Sometimes they were next to the power units. The staff didn't know what to do. They had their rounds to make. They needed to check the equipment, but there was a tank right in front of it.

WESTERMAN: Tuz went to work every day for four months, but things just got progressively worse and worse as time went on.

MARTIN: And he has since escaped Ukraine. Does he still keep in contact with people he knew who are working at the plant?

WESTERMAN: Yes. And he's actually now in Switzerland. He says he still keeps in touch with his fellow workers at the plant.

TUZ: (Through interpreter) They're made to stay at their workplace overtime during shelling. They don't have a normal work schedule, and much fewer people are available now. They don't have backup in case someone gets ill. There's enough staff, but it's much more difficult for them to perform their duties.

WESTERMAN: He says people are scared, and they want to leave. But he calls them heroes for ensuring the safety of the plant under such pressure. And Tuz says the only right thing to keep the plant safe and the thousands still working inside is to demilitarize the plant altogether.

MARTIN: NPR's Ashley Westerman reporting from Lviv. Thank you so much, Ashley.

WESTERMAN: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: How much has abortion law changed since the Supreme Court ruling?

MARTIN: Two months ago, the court made a choice to eliminate the constitutional right to an abortion. Some states had trigger laws on the books to outlaw abortion. Others are debating it. Many face state court battles. And abortion advocates expect more new laws will be introduced next year. Here's Elisabeth Smith with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

ELISABETH SMITH: We will also likely see novel criminal penalties for abortion providers and helpers and some states trying to prevent people from crossing state lines.

INSKEEP: NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon covers abortion rights policy. Hey there, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the count of states that have changed their laws in these two months?

MCCAMMON: Well, so far, you know, many states had trigger bans, laws that were written to go into effect essentially as soon as the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was handed down. So already about eight states have total or near-total abortion bans in effect. That's according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. But, Steve, what's happening this week is, you know, others essentially had a waiting period in place, and there's also been some litigation up in the air in several states. So a handful of states are expected to have abortion bans take effect this week, Thursday or Friday. And we're talking about Tennessee, Texas and Idaho, as well as North Dakota. There's some litigation up in the air there. But unless a court intervenes, the date in North Dakota is Friday.

INSKEEP: OK, so abortion would still be legal then in a majority of states, but an increasing number are banning them or coming very near that. What impacts are those laws having?

MCCAMMON: Well, these new laws in many cases are already essentially in effect. I mean, the impact is already there. So Texas, we know that last year Texas had that state law banning most abortions after six weeks take effect in September. And more laws are on the books as well that have been triggered by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. At this point in Texas, Steve, there are no clinics providing abortions, a shift that really began, you know, months ago.

Idaho has a similar law in effect to the one in Texas that is enforced through private lawsuits, but there's another law, again, that may go into effect later this week. North Dakota only has one remaining abortion clinic. It's already moved its services to Minnesota, at least for now, where abortion remains legal. And then Tennessee also has very limited abortion access because of a six-week ban there. But the law scheduled to take effect this week goes even further, an almost total ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. So we're just seeing kind of a deepening of what's already happening.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's a good word - deepening. We have laws on top of laws on top of laws. But you mentioned court battles challenging some of those laws. Where do those battles stand?

MCCAMMON: Right. So abortion rights groups have been trying to argue that at least some state constitutions offer protections for abortion rights, even if the U.S. Constitution does not. And abortion rights opponents, of course, are pushing back. Erin Hawley is senior counsel with the anti-abortion group Alliance Defending Freedom, which is working to enforce abortion laws in several states, including Wyoming. And she hopes that more states will eventually let their abortion bans take effect.

ERIN HAWLEY: I think we'll see a number of other states that these laws will come online, that the intermediate courts of appeals and the state supreme courts will hopefully find that there is no state constitutional right to abortion. Hopefully, Wyoming, Arizona - we'll get (ph) some of these other places as well.

INSKEEP: Sarah, thanks for the update.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.