Republicans Exert Their Dominance of North Carolina With Passage of 12-Week Abortion Ban

The state GOP enjoys a supermajority in the Legislature, allowing it to enforce a new redistricting map that could help Speaker McCarthy keep power in Washington.

Robert Willett/the News & Observer via AP
The lieutenant governor of North Carolina, Mark Robinson, at a rally where he announced his candidacy for governor, April 22, 2023, at Ace Speedway, Elon, North Carolina. Robert Willett/the News & Observer via AP

Even though North Carolina has a popular Democratic governor, Republicans are governing the state with no limits. A new supermajority in both legislative houses has made the GOP the unilateral arbiter of power on issues like guns, abortion, and the redistricting process. 

North Carolina currently bans abortion after 20 weeks and six days, but Republicans in the state house of representatives on Wednesday introduced a 12-week abortion ban. The house passed the bill on Wednesday evening, with the state senate expected to vote on the measure on Thursday. 

While the Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who’s in his second and final term due to term limits, has said he would veto the bill, he is ultimately powerless. In early April, a state representative, Tricia Cotham, announced she would switch her party registration to Republican from Democrat, giving the GOP a veto-proof majority in the lower chamber. In 2022, Republicans won a supermajority of the state senate, meaning the legislature can now pass whatever bills they please as long as every Republican is on board. 

Ms. Cotham announced her decision on April 4 at a press conference at the North Carolina Republican Party’s Raleigh headquarters. “This modern day Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me. The party wants to villainize anyone who has free thought,” Ms. Cotham said. She claimed that her Democratic colleagues have been privately criticizing her for her more moderate beliefs since the beginning of the legislative session in January.

On Wednesday, Ms. Cotham voted for the 12-week abortion ban despite being a longtime advocate of abortion rights. Exactly one year before the vote — on May 3, 2022 — Ms. Cotham posted a message on social media saying she would always defend the right to have an abortion in North Carolina. “Now, more than ever we need leaders who will be unwavering and unapologetic in their support of abortion rights,” she wrote on Twitter then. 

Republicans have held both houses of the North Carolina legislature for more than a decade. Over many years of clever redistricting, they created legislative districts that would be solidly Republican in perpetuity. This even though fast-growing North Carolina, now one of the 10 biggest states, is considered a battleground state, largely evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, with a large Black population, at 21 percent. Seven years ago, when Mr. Cooper was about to assume office, the outgoing GOP governor, Pat McCrory signed legislation substantially weakening the governor’s powers.

The current legislative session is the first time the GOP will have the power to pass bills without any input whatsoever from the Democratic governor. In March, Mr. Cooper vetoed a bill that relaxed gun permit restrictions and background checks, only to have the legislature override him. Ms. Cotham’s absence from that vote led many of her Democratic colleagues to criticize her privately, she claimed.

The gun bill override was just the opening salvo to a new future of North Carolina politics in which a governor is essentially rendered powerless. On issues like abortion, legislative redistricting, and school choice, Mr. Cooper will be cut out of the conversation entirely.

The house minority leader, Representative Robert Reives, said Ms. Cotham pulled a bait-and-switch move on her voters by campaigning on key Democratic causes last year. “Tricia Cotham campaigned as a Democrat and supporter of abortion rights, health care, public education, gun safety, and civil rights,” Mr. Reives said in a statement. “The appropriate action is for her to resign so that her constituents are fairly represented.”

Republican control of the legislature could be further entrenched thanks to the GOP majority on the state supreme court. Even though North Carolina is a swing state, the way Republicans have drawn maps — both on the legislative and congressional levels — have traditionally contributed to overrepresentation of the GOP in these elected bodies. 

On April 28, the North Carolina court ruled that state courts have no role in adjudicating the legality of district maps drawn by the state legislature. The decision is the first test of the so-called independent state legislature theory, which mandates state legislatures be the highest authority in setting the rules for elections.

​​“Our constitution expressly assigns the redistricting authority to the General Assembly,” Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote for the majority. “Those limitations do not address partisan gerrymandering. It is not within the authority of this Court to amend the constitution to create such limitations on a responsibility that is textually assigned to another branch.”

The decision is a major reversal for the court, which ruled in 2022 that the state legislature must draw maps that more accurately reflect the partisan makeup of the Tarheel State. North Carolina elects justices to its highest court, and the majority flipped to Republican from Democrat last year. The new congressional district maps mandated by the court last year resulted in Democrats winning seven of the state’s 14 U.S. House races.

Republicans now have the opportunity to revisit those congressional maps before the 2024 election, bolstering hopes that picking up just a few more GOP seats in North Carolina could help Speaker McCarthy keep his job. 

Beyond solidifying their power in the state’s institutions, North Carolina Republicans are poised to move further to the right ideologically if they choose their firebrand lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson, as their candidate for governor in 2024. 

Mr. Robinson, who was elected to his current position as a political neophyte in 2020, is the strong favorite to win the GOP nomination. The state’s first Black lieutenant governor, the 300-pound Mr. Robinson is a mesmerizing orator and fierce conservative on social issues, and has a long history of making controversial comments.

In 2021, he called members of the LGBTQ community “filth,” adding, “and yes I called it filth. And if you don’t like that I called it filth, come see me and I’ll explain it to you.” That same year, he said the transgender community was “demonic” and “full of the spirit of the antichrist.”

Before serving as lieutenant governor, Mr. Robinson made a number of statements on Facebook that have been criticized as antisemitic. Writing about Marvel’s “Black Panther,” he said that the film was “created by an agnostic Jews and filmed by [a] satanic marxist.”

He also famously has said, “Ain’t but two genders — male and female.… And I don’t care how much you cut yourself up, drug yourself up, and dress yourself up. You’re still either one of two things. You’re either a man or a woman. You might be a cut-up, dressed-up, drugged-up ugly man or woman. But you [are] still a man or a woman.”

Additionally, he has said, “When I die and leave out of here, I’m not going to be standing in front of CNN, with them asking me about what I said about transgenderism. I’m going to be standing before the Almighty and he’s going to ask me, ‘Did you follow along with them lies they were telling down there on Earth about my creation? Or did you stand up for me and what I told you to believe in?’”

He is not concerned about scrutiny of his comments from the left, often saying from the podium that he sees “Right Wing Watch” members in the audience and encouraging them to take out their pens and take notes.

Some conservative strategists are concerned that Mr. Robinson may be so far right that he could leave an opening for his likely Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Stein, to squeak out a win in the governor’s race.

The New York Sun

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