Election 2014: Women’s Rights in the Balance

By Andrea Flynn |

As the election approaches, a number of close-call races could have disparate impact on women. This piece is the overview in our Election 2014: Women’s Rights in the Balance series. The state-by-state analyses, to be published over the course of Thursday, October 30 and Friday, October 31, can be found here.

Pundits have long anticipated that women voters would be the deciding factor in many of the midterm races across the United States. This seems only fitting, given that the outcome of many of this year’s races will shape policies and programs that have a disproportionate impact on women’s health, economic security, and overall wellbeing. From birth control to fair pay to food stamps, there is a lot at stake, both at the national and state level.

With the elections less than a week away, control of the Senate is a tossup (and, according to a number of polls, that’s being generous to the Democrats). What if the Republicans gain a majority? For starters, it would certainly make it more difficult to advance proactive legislation on health access, reproductive and sexual health and rights, gun violence, safety net funding, and financial regulations, among other issues.

Even with the current Democratic majority, getting legislation passed has been a herculean effort. Remember a year ago when the federal government shut down for two weeks because of the GOP’s disdain for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and specifically its requirement that insurance companies pay for birth control? If lawmakers can’t do the job of keeping open the very government that employs them, it’s hardly surprising they can’t find a legislative fix to the Hobby Lobby ruling. The “Not My Bosses Business Act” – introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Mark Udall (D-CO) in the wake of this summer’s Supreme Court decision – would have restored the ACA requirement that employer-based health plans cover all FDA-approved methods of contraception. But Republicans filibustered the vote, Democrats fell four votes shy of breaking the filibuster, and the bill met a swift end. Nothing about the fate of this bill – or many others like it – was surprising given the complete intransigence that has come to characterize Washington.

A more conservative Senate will mean even more attempts to reduce non-defense discretionary spending while concerns about ISIS, Russia, and other national security issues drive up the Pentagon budget. It will mean greater efforts to shrink the social safety net, to keep financial regulations at bay, to restrict reproductive health access, and to dismantle the ACA, President Obama’s crowning political achievement. As Politico pointed out recently, it’s nearly impossible for Republicans to completely repeal the ACA. But they would certainly try to overturn the law’s most vulnerable components or use appropriations and reconciliation battles to eviscerate it. And Republicans would use their strengthened political muscle to push for other measures that have been sidelined under Democratic control. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell has promised to push for a 20-week abortion ban if Republicans gain control of the Senate, and there would surely be more where that came from.

Of course, President Obama would veto any legislation that undermines his own policy priorities, but it remains to be seen how much political capital he would need to spend – and what he would be asked to give up – in order to stay the course. Funding for Planned Parenthood in exchange for the employer mandate? Federal protections for contraceptive access in order to pay for essential safety programs like food stamps? Reducing funding for Medicaid expansion in order to authorize a funding extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Program?

Meanwhile, because of the gridlock in federal politics, states have become an increasingly important battleground for both parties to test and advance their priorities, particularly those that relate to critical – and often controversial – social issues. Each party has seen wins thanks to the shifting focus to the states. Look no further than the historic gains in LGBT rights on the one hand, and the significant restrictions in abortion access on the other, that have swept the country in recent years. This election will determine the path states will take in a number of other important areas: Medicaid expansion, abortion and family planning access, safety net programs, fair and equal pay, and paid sick and family leave.

To more deeply explore what the midterm elections will mean for women and families, the Roosevelt Institute is releasing a series of articles that examine where the candidates in a number of “close-call” states stand on the issues. Many of these articles were researched by and co-written with students from these states involved with Roosevelt’s Campus Network, the nation’s largest student policy think tank. Our hope is that these pieces will help voters and advocates assess the pressing health and socioeconomic challenges women face in states across the country, and to illustrate where each candidate stands on policies that will have a disproportionate impact on women and their families. 

Read the state-by-state analyses in this series, to be published over the course of Thursday, October 30 and Friday, October 31, here.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where she researches and writes about issues that impact women and families. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Cosmopolitan, Salon, The Hill, and Women’s eNews. You can follow Andrea on Twitter @dreaflynn.