Nathaniel Rakich: After the 2022 election, North Carolina Democrats had reason to celebrate. They had prevented Republicans from winning a supermajority in the North Carolina state House by a single seat. As a result, there was nothing Republicans could do if Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed their legislation.
But on April 5, state Rep. Tricia Cotham basically said, “Party’s over.”
Tricia Cotham: I have decided to change my party affiliation, joining the Republican Party.
Nathaniel Rakich: The long-time Democrat’s switch handed the Republicans their coveted supermajority. Cotham’s move came out of nowhere and really stunned political observers, who all asked themselves the same question: What’s the deal with Cotham’s party switch?
Honestly, it’s a mystery even I can’t solve. Cotham says she left the Democratic Party because she felt “bullied” for not toeing the party line. But besides voting with Republicans on a couple of recent bills, Cotham has been a mostly loyal Democrat during her 10 years in the state House. In 2015, she was one of the leading voices against Republicans’ proposal to require a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. And in 2022, she ran on a platform of defending voting rights, protecting LGBTQ rights and raising the minimum wage.
It’s not like she was in danger of losing reelection either. In fact, President Biden carried her suburban Charlotte district 61 percent to 38 percent. So honestly, this party switch probably means the end of her political career — unless Republicans redraw her district to be much more Republican next year. Which, given North Carolina’s track record with redistricting, could definitely happen.
Cotham’s not the only legislator who has switched parties this year. Two other Democrats also switched to the GOP in Louisiana, giving Republicans a legislative supermajority there too. But their defections made a lot more sense: They were moderate Democrats and represented Republican-leaning seats. Absent those circumstances, party switching is still pretty rare. Federally, only one member of Congress has switched between the two parties in the last 13 years: New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew announced he was switching from a Democrat to a Republican in 2019, and made it official in 2020.
But in North Carolina at least, it’s only going to take this one defection to have a massive impact on policy. Now that Republicans have the votes to override the governor’s vetoes, they can unilaterally enact some of the laws they’ve tried and failed to pass in the past: regulating discussions of race in public schools, increasing penalties for rioting and ending same-day voter registration.
But the question on everyone’s lips is if they’ll be able to ban or restrict abortion. To do that, they’ll probably need every Republican to vote in lockstep — including Cotham, the ex-Democrat who fought so hard for abortion rights in 2015. She’s not saying how she’ll vote now, but she did signal she was open to supporting abortion restrictions. So this North Carolina party switch could turn out to be a very big deal indeed.