North Carolina Republicans successfully overrode Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of their new abortion restrictions on Tuesday, but they were only able to do so for two reasons, neither of them good: partisan gerrymandering and an inexplicable recent party switch by a previously pro-choice lawmaker.
That new law will ban most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy and also add significant other restrictions on abortions even before then, tightening the state's previous 20-week limit and undermining its status as an oasis in a region with severe restraints on abortion access. But perpetually swingy North Carolina didn't get here by accident.
North Carolina's legislative districts have been gerrymandered to favor Republicans to varying degrees ever since the GOP swept into power in the 2010 midterms. Because the governor lacks veto power over redistricting, the courts have been the only bulwark against Republican gerrymandering, leading to an endless cycle of litigation as the GOP's maps would get struck down, replaced, and challenged once again.
While the courts blocked the initial maps Republicans passed after the 2020 census, GOP lawmakers responded by adopting slightly tamer gerrymanders that were used in 2022 while litigation proceeded. Despite Republicans' modest victories in last year's statewide elections for the U.S. Senate and other contests, Republicans came close to winning veto-proof majorities in the legislature under these revised lines, securing three-fifths of all seats in the Senate and falling one shy of that mark in the House.
Democrats had reason to hope the future might look different, however, after the state Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in December ruling that partisan gerrymandering violated North Carolina's constitution. The court consequently struck down the GOP's state Senate map, ordering it to be redrawn for 2024. (It did, however, uphold the state House map, where the GOP's gerrymander was more subtle.)
But that ruling did not stand for long. After flipping control of the court last year, the new Republican majority issued an unprecedented decision last month that reversed the court's four-month-old ruling and decreed that state courts could not police partisan gerrymandering. That now gives GOP lawmakers a blank check to re-gerrymander the state from top to bottom.
For just one example where gerrymandering made all the difference for Republicans, we can look to coastal New Hanover County, a swingy suburban community centered around the city of Wilmington.
Rather than keep the city intact in a single district, Republicans carved out a heavily Democratic swath of downtown Wilmington, allowing Republican state Sen. Michael Lee to win reelection in the 7th District by just a 51-49 margin last fall. Had all of Wilmington instead been placed in the 7th, the district likely would have been about 3 points bluer—enough to negate Lee's victory and prevent Republicans from winning a 30-20 supermajority in the Senate.
While gerrymandering was also crucial in the state House, it wasn't enough by itself, since Republicans came one seat short in November when they won a 71-49 majority. But last month, Democratic state Rep. Tricia Cotham unexpectedly switched her allegiance to the Republican Party, despite having won a solidly blue open seat in the Charlotte suburbs last year.
Cotham had previously served in the state House as a Democrat from 2007 to 2017. In 2015, she shared the story of her own abortion in speaking out against abortion restrictions on the House floor, which she said led to harassment by abortion opponents. Just this year, Cotham co-sponsored a bill to codify abortion rights after campaigning on a broad range of popular Democratic positions, including a $15 minimum wage, treating health care as a right, protecting voting rights, and LGBTQ equality.
Cotham's switch came just days after she'd been on the receiving end of progressive backlash when her absence from the legislature enabled Republicans to override Cooper's veto to pass a law weakening gun safety legislation. Cotham had been a relative moderate and had previously sided with the GOP on a few issues, such as expanding charter schools, but her voting record still placed her well within the Democratic Party's mainstream, making her switch even more astonishing to North Carolina Democrats.
Subsequent reporting has characterized Cotham's move as motivated not by ideology, but largely by petty personal grievances against Democratic lawmakers and a quest for power. Whatever the reason, she immediately began voting with Republicans and reversing her positions on multiple issues, with abortion being just the latest and likely far from the last.
Going forward, gerrymandering will play a key role in insulating Republicans from any popular backlash for passing unpopular laws, including their new abortion ban. Cotham herself could be just such an example if she seeks reelection because, while her current district supported Biden 61-38 in 2020, Republicans could make it considerably redder. That would still leave her vulnerable in a general election but would also provide her with a path to victory that no longer exists in her current district.
With GOP legislative dominance likely to grow ever more entrenched, the most plausible way forward for progressives in North Carolina will be for Democrats to regain control of the state Supreme Court. The soonest Democrats could flip the court, however, would likely be in 2028, which would require winning next year's election for governor and several court races between 2024 and 2028.
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