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Midterms mean high stakes for women voters

On Election Day, control of the Senate isn't all that's up for grabs. Real policy changes will happen at the state level, with massive implications for women.
A voter casts her ballot at a polling site in Georgia on May 16, 2014. (David Goldman/AP)
A voter casts her ballot at a polling site in Georgia on May 16, 2014.

For many voters and political observers, the big question in the 2014 midterm election is which party will end up in control of the U.S. Senate. The answer will impact presidential nominations, future legislation and greatly influence the remainder of President Obama’s term. But real policy changes in this country will happen at the state level, with massive implications for all Americans, and especially American women.

These elections should not be ignored, for in this country, the fate of women often rests in the hands of state legislatures.

Remember the 2010 midterms? I was running for Congress at the time so every detail of that cycle is indelibly stamped on my brain. The economy was terrible (as opposed to merely bad as it is now). The bloom was not yet off, the tea party rose, and candidates were coming up with all sorts of innovative ways to explain just how big the national debt was (if you stacked dollar bills to the moon … ).

Of course we all remember the end result on Election Night. Nancy Pelosi’s time as speaker came to an unceremonious end; Republicans moved into governors' mansions across the country and notably, Republicans gained control of an unprecedented number of state legislatures. Michigan, New Hampshire, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina and more all had legislative chambers flip to GOP control. Republicans picked up more than 675 legislative seats, the largest swing of any party since 1938.

But no one could have predicted what would happen next.

Virtually all the Republican campaign rhetoric had focused on “out of control spending” and the evil Obama-Pelosi monster. But, as it turned out, Republicans had failed to mention a few other agenda items. Once they had control of state legislatures, Republican state leaders immediately set out not just to cut budgets, but also to pass voter suppression laws and to wage an all out, record breaking war on women’s rights.

If you are wondering where the "war on women" came from, this was it. Voters who thought they were choosing fiscal restraint ended up with legislation on transvaginal probes. In North Carolina, we got the most restrictive abortion bill in the state’s history attached to a bill about motorcycle safety. In New Hampshire, family planning funding was cut by more than half and funding for Planned Parenthood was completely eliminated. Personhood became a household word. The initiative to severely limit access to contraception and abortion by defining life as beginning at conception has yet to pass — but has become the extreme new goal for anti-choice advocates.

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According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, the first year of the new Republican class, the number of abortion restrictions skyrocketed. Eleven-hundred anti-women bills were introduced in state houses across the country and a record breaking 135 of these provisions were signed into law. Since then, we have had more anti-choice bills passed into law then in the entire prior decade. And it all started not because congressional seats changed hands (although the House GOP has certainly caused plenty of trouble, too) but because power shifted in state legislatures across the country.

This cycle could easily produce even worse results in terms of state GOP control. According to The Washington Post, “Republicans have the opportunity to take control of a record number of state legislative chambers across the country this year.” Democrats control 39 chambers while Republicans control 59 and are in position to gain even more.

Overall, Governing Magazine finds 11 chambers where Democrats could realistically lose control to Republicans. In Colorado, both the House and the Senate are at risk of flipping. With the Colorado gubernatorial race currently deadlocked, a bad night for Democrats in Colorado could hand complete control of both state bodies and the governor’s mansion to Republicans, allowing them to act with no Democratic check whatsoever.

The stakes are also high in Iowa where Republicans hold both the House and the governor’s mansion, which they look likely to retain. Democrats are defending a slim two-seat majority in the Iowa Senate. Kentucky’s House could also go Republican, joining the already safe Republican Senate.

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The results of these races and more could be devastating for American women whose access to abortion, family planning services, and cancer screenings are already under assault. A 2011 study found that 87% of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider and that abortion providers are virtually non-existent outside of metro areas.

Through laws requiring medically unnecessary procedures, waiting periods, hospital admitting privileges, bans on insurance coverage of abortion, elimination of state funding to Planned Parenthood, and unnecessary regulation targeted simply at forcing the closure of clinics, Republicans have systematically made the right to abortion theoretical rather than a truly accessible one for millions of American women. In 2012, women revolted against these incredible restrictions voting in historic numbers for Obama and creating the largest voting gender gap ever recorded.

And Republican candidates of 2014 are presenting themselves as a kinder, gentler sort. Several, including Colorado’s Cory Gardner who is running for Senate, have actually touted their support for over-the-counter birth control access as a way of masking their opposition to the birth control coverage provided by Obamacare.

But the party platform hasn’t changed. There is absolutely no reason to think that handing more state legislative bodies to Republicans will be any different in 2014 than what we got in 2010. The national groups crafting model legislation to push out to amenable state houses across the country are still well-funded and ready to pounce. If the polls hold we could be looking for, and should expect, a massive assault on women’s rights. Prepare yourself for a whole new war on women.