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

The switch by Rep. Tricia Cotham 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

Rep. Tricia Ann Cotham is photographed
Rep. Tricia Ann Cotham is photographed Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Raleigh, North Carolina.Chris Seward (AP)

Mere weeks before North Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature enacted a 12-week abortion limit over the 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 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 education policies and transgender restrictions across the finish line — several of which they introduced the same week Cotham 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 whom Cooper lobbied heavily 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 campaign 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 override vote.

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.

Cooper defended his cross-state campaign to persuade at least one Republican to uphold his veto, saying the 47-page bill had been approved less than 48 hours after its release. And GOP leaders sounded confident they had the votes for a successful override, he said.

“Somebody had to tell the people of North Carolina what was in this legislation, and that’s what I did,” Cooper told the AP on Friday, adding that what “I was trying to do was to change that math and to point out the promises that these Republicans had made.”

As for Davis’ comments about bullying, Cooper responded: “People are always looking for an excuse when they break a promise.”

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 ban on gender-affirming surgeries for transgender minors and a prohibition on transgender student athletes playing on the sports teams that align with their gender identity.

Her party switch also gives Republicans greater confidence that they will have the votes to expand considerably a state program that provides taxpayer-funded scholarships to K-12 children to attend private schools.

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