Commentary Politics

The Senate Flip Could Have Serious Implications for Women of Color

Zerlina Maxwell

Unfortunately, very few issues that women of color prioritize will probably intersect with a GOP agenda in the near future.

Now that Election Day 2014 has come and gone, Americans can finally confront the prospect of a new world era under Republican legislative control. Pundits will label last night’s results a massacre—not that far off the mark, given that the GOP picked up a total of seven new Senate seats over the course of the evening. Democrats will likely point fingers of blame at each other, asking whether it was the candidates, the president, the messaging, or the media that cost the party big-time. Regardless of who should take responsibility for the flip, one thing is clear as the GOP settles into power: Though we have no idea how Republicans will use their legislative authority, their next moves could have serious implications for women of color.

Reproductive rights were seriously endangered last night in various races, with amendments on the ballot in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota. In Colorado, the extreme “personhood” measure did not pass, as the anti-choice forces failed once again to expand the definition of “child” or “person” in the state’s criminal code to include “unborn human beings.” A similar proposed law was unsuccessful in North Dakota as well. Both would have had the real-world effect of criminalizing pregnant women who miscarry under suspicious circumstances—or at all.

Tennessee’s ballot measure, meanwhile, was a bit more complicated. The amendment, which passed Tuesday night, effectively stripped protection for abortion from the state’s constitution, leaving it vulnerable to restrictive laws in the future.

Now that the Senate is in GOP hands, attempts like these to stifle abortion rights will almost certainly continue on the national stage. The House has been making attempts at passing abortion-restricting laws since 2010, including ones that would defund Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood, define life as beginning at fertilization, and allow employers to control the contraception choices of their employees. Now, all of these could come up for debate again in the upper chamber. As Emily Crockett predicted for Rewire last week, a 20-week abortion ban could be the first push of the newly remade conservative Congress:

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Chances are good that, if Republicans seize control of the U.S. Senate on Election Day, they will try to push through a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation nationwide.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who will likely become majority leader if he wins his re-election campaign next week and if Republicans win the Senate, has promised his base that the bill is a priority for him.

Abortion-restricting measures don’t necessarily have a strong chance of becoming law, thanks to President Obama’s handy veto, but the time spent debating them wastes time and tax dollars on what should be settled topics.

In addition, Tuesday’s results show that it’s now time to address the fact that while Democrats have an edge in women voters overall, Republicans largely won white women. That isn’t wholly surprising, given the states in this week’s election fight, but it may help Democrats figure out a cohesive, working messaging strategy going forward that demonstrates their understanding of the issues that matter to the voters who consistently show up.

Women of color have concerns beyond reproductive rights, too. Earlier this year, every single Senate Republican voted against equal pay, a measure that would have explicitly helped to narrow the wage gap. This discrepancy is even further heightened for women of color: Black women are paid 64 cents for every white man’s dollar, and Latina women receive 54 cents. Because the majority of low-wage work is done by women of color, it is significant that Americans supported minimum wage increases around the country. Even so, white women still stood behind a party that has not advocated for economic equality—leaving women of color in the lurch.

Delays in reforming the broken immigration system amid record deportation figures also have disproportionately high impacts on women of color. If the newly GOP Senate does make a move on immigration reform—which they may not at all—it could work toward something far less comprehensive and humane than the ones previously proposed.

Although Tuesday’s exit polling shows that Americans are still anxious about the economy, but the Democrats, who brought the country from the brink of economic collapse, did not hold up progress on this front as a signal of success. Meanwhile, the GOP has been in full-fledged obstruction mode since 2010. Now that Republicans have a real share in the responsibility to govern, that dynamic will finally have to change. Unfortunately, very few issues that women of color prioritize—including reproductive rights, equal pay and immigration, but also education and access to health care—will probably intersect with a GOP agenda in the near future.

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