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North Carolina’s new Republican supermajority, explained

North Carolina Republicans gained a supermajority and the ability to override vetoes from the state’s Democratic governor last week, following a surprise defection by a Democratic lawmaker. State Rep. Tricia Cotham, who was elected as a Democrat in 2022, announced at a Wednesday press conference that she was joining the GOP, shifting the balance between the Republican legislature and the state’s Democratic governor.

Cotham’s 112th district, which includes part of Mecklenburg County in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, is a Democratic stronghold in the purple state, which former President Donald Trump won with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2020. North Carolina, however, has been carved up by partisan gerrymandering, and state Republicans have attempted to limit Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s power since before he took office. Now, they have another powerful tool to do so.

Cotham on Wednesday framed her decision to switch parties as a personal one, spurred by alleged attacks and threats against Cotham and her family, as well as bullying from Democrats. However, it’s a dramatic departure from the platform on which she ran for office and part of a larger trend of disproportionately limiting the influence of Democrats in the state.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Cotham told the crowd that she no longer recognized the Democratic Party, despite having campaigned as a Democrat and accepting donations from Democratic groups just months before. Democrats, including Mecklenburg County Democratic Party chair Jane Whitley, have called for Cotham to return recent donations; some have referred to Cotham’s switch as fraud and have called for her resignation.

Cotham first joined the General Assembly in 2007, when she was appointed to fill a vacant Democratic seat for Mecklenburg County, Whitley told Vox. Both her parents are well-known figures in local Democratic politics, and those deep ties have caused a sense of bafflement and betrayal among her former supporters.

But more than just a sense of betrayal, there’s fear among North Carolina Democrats for the future of Democratic priorities, Whitley and van Haefen told Vox — issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion access, which Cotham campaigned on.

It’s unclear how much Cotham’s switch could change for day-to-day functioning of the General Assembly, Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Democrat representing Wake County, told Vox. Cotham didn’t caucus with the Democrats in the House, von Haefen said, and it’s not terribly uncommon for representatives to cross party lines in a vote.

“[Democrats are] still focused on the things we’re fighting for,” von Haefen said. “But on the other hand, it is worrisome. Going forward, some of the top issues we’re concerned about — abortion, gun violence, and LGBTQ rights … I feel that the Republicans are emboldened to file a lot of really harmful bills that are going to hurt a lot of people in our state, and that’s worrisome.”

North Carolina politics have been on a knife’s edge for years

Cotham is not the first politician to switch parties in North Carolina, but when the stakes are as high as they are right now, a state legislator’s defection makes national news. Cotham’s switch means that Cooper no longer has a buffer against Republican power in the legislature. Cooper has vetoed 76 bills so far in his tenure — at least 20 every legislative session since 2017, when he took office. Republicans last held a supermajority in the General Assembly before the 2018 midterms.

North Carolina Republicans have taken aim at Cooper’s power since before he was even in office; shortly after he was elected, defeating incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016, Republicans in the General Assembly pushed through bills limiting the governor’s power and injecting partisan politics into the court system.

“The first two years of the Cooper administration, it was very much a public battle over power dynamics between the legislature and the governor [over] his appointment powers and his capabilities before he even took office,” Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College who contributes to the Old North State Politics blog, told Vox.

Specifically, House Bill 17, which McCrory signed into law in December 2016, hamstrung Cooper’s ability to appoint staff, required cabinet appointments to be approved by the legislature, and limited Cooper’s control over the education system. Senate Bill 4 turned the state’s Supreme Court elections to a partisan process, requiring candidates to disclose their party affiliation on a ballot. The bill also changed requirements for appeals, routing all cases through the Republican-controlled appeals court, and limited Cooper’s control over the state and county boards of elections; McCrory, a Republican, signed both bills into law.

Even without the 2016 efforts to limit Cooper’s power, North Carolina has historically had a weak executive branch in comparison to the legislative branch. In North Carolina, according to Bitzer, “What the legislature wants, the legislature gets.” But once Republicans lost their supermajority after the 2018 midterms, Cooper and the legislature reached a détente and managed to work together. Now, with Cotham’s defection, the détente might be over, and Republicans, should they maintain party unity, could go back to obstructing Cooper’s priorities.

And GOP attempts to limit Democratic power in the state go back even further than Cooper’s election: Voter suppression tactics and some of the most extreme partisan gerrymandering in the country, both for national representation and statehouse representation, have helped to tilt the balance in North Carolina over the last decade. Though the state Supreme Court drew the electoral maps currently in use, the Republican supermajority will again be in charge of drawing districts for the next election cycle — and under state law, Cooper can’t veto those maps.

Since 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, there have been increasingly few options to curb such blatant gerrymandering. Under that provision, certain jurisdictions, including parts of North Carolina, had to submit changes to their voting procedures, including new electoral maps, to the Department of Justice.

Now, with Cotham’s switch, North Carolina Republicans have even more power to enact the policies they want, regardless of Cooper’s stance or the wishes of voters.

What does the future hold for democracy in North Carolina?

Despite Cotham’s defection, it’s not clear North Carolina’s GOP will be able to legislate with free rein. For one, Cotham may still vote with Democrats on some issues, as she’s publicly asserted her independent thinking and given personal, rather than ideological, explanations for her switch.

“I am still the same person and I am going to do what I believe is right and follow my conscience,” Cotham said at a Wednesday press conference announcing her move.

In her speech announcing her defection, as well as in a radio interview afterward, Cotham cited death threats and threats to her children, as well as feeling shut out and other personal slights by Democrats as the reason for her switch, rather than a change in political ideology. Vox made multiple attempts to reach Cotham for further clarification on the alleged threats and mistreatment, but she did not respond by press time.

In a 2015 speech on the House floor, Cotham passionately defended the right to an abortion, telling he fellow legislators about her own experience with the procedure and accusing Republicans aiming to limit the right to abortion of wanting to “play doctor.”

But there are signs she may already be backtracking on those once-firmly-held beliefs. Earlier this legislative session, Cotham signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill codifying the measures of Roe v. Wade. “Now she is hedging when anyone asks her the question [about abortion bans], and that concerns a lot of us,” Whitley told Vox.

In an interview with Charlotte news station WBTV, Cotham indicated that she would be open to limits on abortion, though she didn’t discuss any specifics. Republicans in the House are planning to introduce a 12-week ban, Speaker of the House Tim Moore told the station.

Abortion is still legal up to 20 weeks in North Carolina after the end of Roe v. Wade. Women in nearby states that have outlawed or severely restricted the procedure have increasingly relied on North Carolina to provide abortion care they can’t access in their own states; if Cotham changes her stance on the right to an abortion in North Carolina, it could impact not just North Carolinians, but residents of neighboring states who come to access care.

Just after Cotham’s switch, the state Senate GOP filed five bills restricting the rights of transgender youth in the state to seek gender-affirming medical care and play on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. The legislature had held off on proposing such extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation before Republicans gained the supermajority, but with Cotham’s defection, those harsh measures could become law.

Ultimately, however, Cotham’s switch may jeopardize her political future: According to Whitley, von Haefen, and Bitzer, it will be impossible for Republicans to redraw the electoral map to get a Republican win in her district. The Charlotte suburbs are trending increasingly Democratic, according to Bitzer, making any Republican victory there vanishingly unlikely.

“I don’t think the dust has fully settled,” Bitzer said. “There’s still a lot of moving dynamics and dominoes that need to fall before we can truly step back and say, ‘Yeah, this earthquake’s going to have some aftershocks moving forward.’”

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