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Party switches are rare, but this one by a sitting lawmaker in North Carolina is particularly "shocking" and weakens the hand of Gov. Roy Cooper.
A single state lawmaker upended the political landscape in Raleigh on Wednesday, as she switched parties and gave Republicans a supermajority with enough votes to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper at will.
State Rep. Tricia Cotham, who represents a heavily Democratic district in Charlotte, switched allegiances from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, after she said she endured criticism from her Democratic colleagues.
“The party wants to villainize anyone who has free thought, free judgment, has solutions and wants to get to work to better our state,” she said at a news conference with top GOP lawmakers. “If you don’t do exactly what the Democrats want you to do, they will try to bully you. They will try to cast you aside.”
Cotham, who previously campaigned as a supporter of abortion rights and other liberal causes, did not elaborate about how her party switch could affect the fate of high-profile bills such as voting rights, redistricting and the state budget. A former teacher, she said lawmakers “have to evolve” on issues like charter schools.
Several Republican lawmakers have signaled they would soon push for a ban on abortions after six weeks, which could require Cotham’s support to pass. Cotham did not say what kind of restrictions she would back, but she downplayed the issue’s importance. “If you go back into my history, you will note that I was never someone that this was the biggest issue facing women in North Carolina. I believe women are much more,” Cotham said.
Cooper called Cotham’s decision to switch parties “disappointing.”
“It’s hard to believe she would abandon these long-held principles, and she should still vote the way she has always said she would vote when these issues arise, regardless of party affiliation,” the governor said in a statement.
North Carolina was the last state in the country to give its governor the power of the veto and it is weaker than in most states. The governor, for example, can’t veto a line item in a budget as some governors can. Cooper has used his veto dozens of times since becoming governor, but the slim margins in the state House has made it difficult for him to sustain those vetoes.
With Cotham's switch, it will become even harder, although moderate Democrats often side with Republican proposals. Plus, North Carolina only requires a supermajority of lawmakers present—not a supermajority of the chamber’s total membership—to override a veto. That means if Democrats are absent from the floor, Republicans can take advantage and override a veto without them.
In late March, Republicans did just that to override Cooper’s veto of a bill that eliminates North Carolina’s handgun permit requirement and loosened other gun restrictions.
“In reality, Republicans already had a working supermajority on key issues. But the fact that [Cotham] did formally switch to the Republican Party now formalizes that supermajority,” said David McLennan, a political science professor and poll director at Meredith College, a private liberal arts college in Raleigh.
Cooper remains a popular governor, McLennan noted, which has helped him win policy fights. Most recently, the governor convinced Republican lawmakers to go along with a plan to expand Medicaid eligibility under Obamacare, a significant development that took place 13 years after the federal law was signed.
But Republicans drew favorable state legislative districts for themselves and recently secured a majority on the state’s supreme court that could help them preserve those majorities. Plus, McLennan said, Republican lawmakers have remained much more cohesive than Democrats in support of their party’s priorities.
Party switches are rare, but not unheard of in state legislatures. In Louisiana, where partisan affiliations are more fluid than in most states, the longest-serving lawmaker switched parties and gave Republicans a supermajority last month. GOP lawmakers now has the power to overturn vetoes from Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
But party flips tend to happen where lawmakers or their districts are heading in a different ideological direction than the party they’re leaving, such as when many southern Democrats became Republicans following the 2010 elections that swept Republicans into control across the region.
Those don’t appear to have been factors in Cotham’s case, said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
“Generally speaking, it’s a lot more fun to be part of the majority than in the minority,” Greene said. “But to see somebody who was just reelected to a very safe blue district on a platform that was unambiguously a fairly standard Democratic platform to switch parties is absolutely shocking and an egregious betrayal of her voters.”
Unlike in prominent statewide contests for governor or U.S. senator, he said, voters rarely pick their state legislative candidates based on their individual traits.
“But when you are voting for the state legislature in North Carolina, maybe 95% of those votes are simply voting for the ‘D’ or the ‘R’ next to the name, and the people are essentially replaceable,” Greene said. “I’m sure the legislators don’t like to think about it that way, but as a political scientist, that’s the political reality: [the public is] voting for, essentially, a party standard bearer in their district.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.