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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

North Carolina’s Party-Switcher Doesn’t Fit Any Precedents

For southern Democrats in particular, the North Carolina legislator whose change of party handed Republicans a super-majority brought back lots of bad memories. But the defector in question didn’t fit any of the major precedents, as I explained at New York:

Party switching has a long if not entirely honorable history, especially in the South. So on its face, North Carolina Democratic legislator Tricia Cotham’s defection to the GOP on Wednesday is mostly shocking because of its impact. Her flip gives Republicans a supermajority in both branches of the state legislature, thus neutralizing Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s veto power for the next two years.

But Cotham’s reasons for switching parties are a bit of a mystery. She served in the legislature for five terms, from 2007 to 2016, and was a standard-brand moderate-to-liberal Democrat. She turned her attention to the U.S. House in 2016, but lost the Democratic primary. Cotham returned to the North Carolina House this year after successfully campaigning on a “platform of raising the minimum wage, protecting voting rights and bolstering L.B.G.T.Q. rights,” according to the New York Times. While legislators sometimes change parties because their district has become more competitive due to redistricting or demographic change, that isn’t the case here. The Charlotte Observer describes North Carolina’s 12th House District as a “Democrat stronghold,” with 60 percent of voters backing Cotham’s former party.

So why did Cotham flip so soon after being elected as a Democrat from a Democratic district? Like most party switchers, she’s adopted the posture that the party actually left her, as the Times reported:

“[Cotham said] she had been bullied by her fellow Democrats and had grown alienated from the party on issues like school choice.

“’The modern-day Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me and to so many others throughout this state and this country,’ she said in a brief speech. She said both she and her young children had been subjected to personal attacks by Democrats in the state, and denounced what she called attempts to ‘control’ her. ‘They have pushed me out,’ she said.”

Local political reporter Steve Harrison told WFAE that Cotham had raised eyebrows by voting with Republicans a few times since returning to Raleigh this year:

“One of the first [defections] came in December when she was the only Democrat to vote for a constitutional amendment that would make members of the state Board of Election elected rather than appointed. And there were others, a bill requiring sheriffs to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

But the moment her voting record really got hostile attention from Democrats came a week ago when she (along with two other Democrats) missed a vote that overrode Cooper’s veto of a bill repealing the state’s pistol permitting law. She reportedly was absent due to a medical appointment related to long-COVID symptoms, and was publicly opposed to the veto override. But at least one local progressive group hinted at “accountability measures” against the absentees, including Cotham.

Was that enough to convince Cotham to turn her coat so soon after being sent by Democratic voters to the legislature? It’s unclear. In her statement defending her decision, she offered a sort of Twitter-made-her-do-it explanation, as the Washington Post noted:

“Cotham, wearing red and standing in front of NCGOP signs, said the turning point in her decision was when she faced backlash for using the American flag and a prayer-hands emoji in her social media handles and on her vehicles.”

Regardless of whether she was pushed or jumped, Cotham now faces certain opposition in 2024 if she runs for reelection; indeed, Democrats are demanding she resign her seat immediately, arguing that it was won under false pretenses. It’s unclear what her new friends in the GOP will do to protect her. “Republicans can redraw the House map and perhaps draw a …seat that leans red, or maybe Cotham just runs for statewide office,” Steve Harrison reported.

This, however, raises even more questions. Will Republican voters really embrace a candidate who just ran on standard Democratic issues? Is her pro-LGBTQ record really compatible with the state party that gave us the first anti-transgender “bathroom bill”? What will GOP voters make of Cotham co-sponsoring a bill codifying abortion protections in January? And will they embrace a woman who once took to the floor of the North Carolina House to talk about her own abortion, calling it a “deeply personal decision” and claiming that GOP lawmakers just want to “play doctor”?

Local TV station WBTV, which interviewed Cotham on Tuesday night, said she “would not commit to positions on specific legislation but indicated she was open to supporting new abortion restrictions.” So anyone anxious to know what kind of consequences this very strange political move will have for abortion rights in North Carolina will have to keep guessing for now.


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