How one North Carolina lawmaker’s defection from the Democratic Party upended abortion protections

May 19, 2023, 8:09 AM

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Mere weeks before North Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature Democratic governor’s opposition this week, state Republican lawmakers appeared just one vote shy of an override.

But one House Democrat — formerly a strong advocate for women’s reproductive rights — unexpectedly switched to the GOP and then voted to squash Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill to limit abortion access.

The switch by Charlotte-area Rep. Tricia Cotham also gave Republicans veto-proof margins in both the House and Senate, upending the state’s fragile power balance and perhaps opening the floodgates to a new wave of conservative policies.

Republican bill sponsors also could use their newly attained veto-proof majority to propel some GOP-backed introduced the same week she announced her party change.

She ran last fall on a platform supporting abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights but has since supported bills that critics say are at odds with those stances.

“Some call me a hypocrite since I voted for this bill,” Cotham said after supporting the abortion override Tuesday. The former Democrat, who has strong familial ties to the party and was known for giving an emotional House floor speech in 2015 about her own ectopic pregnancy, said she thought the bill struck “a reasonable balance” and represented the “middle ground” of two extremes.

Cotham, who earlier this year signed on to legislation to codify abortion protections under Roe v. Wade in state law, was among a small group of GOP legislators who were lobbied heavily by Cooper before the vote to sustain his veto. Rep. Ted Davis, who had declined to state publicly his views on the GOP abortion bill, was another.

While Cotham had voted in favor of further restrictions when the measure initially cleared the House May 4 — a move many Democratic constituents denounced as a “betrayal” — Davis was the lone Republican absent for the vote, making him a primary target of Cooper’s eleventh-hour plea.

The Wilmington-area Republican, who said at a candidate forum last fall that he supported “what the law is in North Carolina right now,” which was a 20-week limit, contends he did not break any promises. Davis now stands by his override vote, viewing it as a separate matter and one on which he made no promises.

The new abortion limits set to take effect July 1 also include new rape or incest exceptions through 20 weeks of pregnancy and exceptions for “life-limiting” fetal anomalies during the first 24 weeks. An existing exception remains for when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger.

“Based on things that have happened in my conscience, I could not vote to support Cooper, in part because of the manner in which he has tried to pressure and bully me into voting to support him,” Davis told The Associated Press after the vote Tuesday.

When announcing her party switch in April, Cotham similarly claimed pressure from Cooper and legislative Democrats made her feel disrespected and in part prompted her defection.

Longtime Democratic consultant Gary Pearce maintains his belief that Cooper’s barnstorming strategy was smart and put the new law “under the harsh spotlight it deserves.” The governor showed voters the hypocrisy of their elected officials, Pearce said, in a move he expects will boost Democratic campaigns next year.

“They were never on the fence,” he suggested of Davis and Cotham. “This was not an inside legislative game. It’s an outside game — a 2024 political strategy.”

The governor’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment on Davis’s criticisms.

Some Democrats are calling for Cotham’s resignation. Her vote to enact new abortion restrictions “went against the will of those who elected her,” said Nina Rodriguez, a voter and constituent of Cotham’s.

Since Cotham joined the GOP, she has also voted for a sports teams that align with their gender identity.


Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.


Associated Press writer Gary Robertson contributed from Raleigh.

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How one North Carolina lawmaker’s defection from the Democratic Party upended abortion protections