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A Party Switch Bears Fruit for the North Carolina GOP
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A Party Switch Bears Fruit for the North Carolina GOP

Republicans are taking advantage of a veto-proof supermajority thanks to a Democratic defection.

The great seal of North Carolina is seen outside the state legislature building in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, May 9, 2016. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats in North Carolina thought they dodged a bullet last November by keeping Republicans from veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

But three months after taking office, Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham defected from her party, handing the GOP a supermajority in both chambers for the first time since 2017 (they now have 72 of the 120 seats in the House, along with the already secured 30 Senate seats) and the ability to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. Cooper has used his veto powers liberally since he took office, shooting down around 20 bills every session.

Since she changed parties in April, reports have ricocheted around the state suggesting that perhaps Cotham’s switch was in Republicans’ sights all along.

Cotham filing to run came as a surprise to Democratic leaders, according to The New York Times. Democrats reportedly texted Cotham to offer help or reach out, but she never responded. She also received well wishes and encouragement to run during her campaign from prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Tim Moore.

Republican insiders call the idea that her switch wasn’t organic as a conspiracy. “She was definitely not a plant,” says Stephen Wiley, North Carolina’s House Republican caucus director, who oversees recruitment for the House GOP. Republicans who were supportive of Cotham running prior to the election were doing so for pragmatic reasons, he says. “If we’re going to have a Democrat in that seat, we’d rather it be somebody that was actually pleasant to work with.”

Only Rep. Tricia Cotham really knows. (She did not respond to an interview request from The Dispatch.) At a press conference and in interviews, she has chalked up the switch to an icy reception by Democrats on her reelection to the statehouse and personal attacks and threats to herself and her children.

The “modern-day Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me,” she said.

Cotham was encouraged to run for the North Carolina House of Representatives by some prominent Republicans, who chalked up their encouragement in interviews with the New York Times to the fact that she had been a cordial lawmaker willing to cross the aisle during her past stint in the House, from 2007 to 2016, after she was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the wake of a resignation due to a corruption scandal. Moore had appointed Cotham to co-chair the House’s K-12 education committee when she was a Democrat.

A week before making the switch, Cotham was one of three Democrats who skipped a vote to override a governor’s veto on a bill easing some gun laws. Those absences allowed Republicans to pass the legislation and earned her fierce blowback from her fellow Democrats.

“I can’t overstate the consequences of this switch,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Jeff Jackson of North Carolina observed on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. He described it as a “political earthquake” for the state.

“Dozens of bills that were essentially dead – from election law changes to reproductive freedom to LGBTQ rights to education policy – may have just sprung back to life,” he wrote. The state budget, he observed, can also clear both chambers with Republican votes alone.

“I have never seen anything like this,” he said.

On May 3, she joined Republicans to override a veto by Cooper that resulted in the enactment of a 12-week abortion limit on most abortions.  

It was an about-face from Cotham’s previous stance on the issue. She won the endorsement of the pro-abortion access group EMILY’s List during the 2022 election and last fall voted with her party to codify Roe v. Wade’s 20-week standard following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. During her previous stint in the statehouse in 2015, while opposing a bill that would have extended the waiting period before someone can move forward with an abortion from 24 to 72 hours, she gave a floor speech in which she talked about her own experience obtaining an abortion.

“We’ve had a number of Democrats changing to Republican or even independent,” J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, tells The Dispatch. But this one, he says, is “unlike any other switch because it’s a district you’d normally expect to be represented by a Democrat.”

Cotham’s district isn’t exactly purple. District 112, in the Charlotte suburbs, went for Joe Biden in the presidential election by more than 60 percent. Cotham won her election by 18 percentage points. Plus, she comes from well-known Democratic stock: Her mother is a commissioner in Mecklenburg County and has been a Democratic National Committee member. Cotham’s ex-husband at one time chaired the North Carolina Democratic Party.

After she flipped, prominent Democrats called on Cotham to resign. “This is about the constituents that trusted Rep. Cotham to champion their values, who are now left with little reassurance that she will do that,” North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton said. “They did not choose to elect a Republican. They chose to elect a Democrat.”

Her political future beyond this term is uncertain. Her seat is likely unwinnable for a Republican, but the next round of redistricting may hand her a more favorable map prior to her next election, political observers have noted. Cotham may also make a bid for statewide office with the backing of Republicans.

But until then, legislative victories may continue for North Carolina Republicans, Coleman says. “As long as Republicans can keep their conference together on the big votes, then Democrats could be in for a world of hurt.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.