Shockwaves rippled through North Carolina politics today with an unusual announcement. Tricia Cotham, the Democratic Representative from the South Meck-based 102nd district, is expected to switch parties on Wednesday, giving Republicans a supermajority in the House. With both chambers now having a Republican supermajority, the party can override Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s vetoes more easily, allowing more conservative legislation to be on the table.
But this move wasn’t really expected. It came following a tumultuous week in the Democratic caucus, which faced internal strife over absences during a key override vote. So who is Tricia Cotham, and why did she switch parties?
The unlikely defector
Based off voting record alone, Cotham makes for an unlikely member of the House Republican caucus. She comes from a Democratic family; her mother Pat Cotham is a Democratic National Committee (DNC) member and a member of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, and she had been married in the past to a former party chair. She previously served in the legislature from 2007 to 2017 in the 100th district, and was elected in 2022 in the safely-Democratic 102nd district.
Cotham’s voting record is liberal, but not extremely liberal. While she has a lifetime “F” rating from the conservative organization Civitas Action, her scores have tended to be in the mid-20s, and she was seen as one of the three most persuadable Democrats in the House. She has voted with Republican leadership on at least one issue this session: Medicaid expansion, which passed on a bipartisan basis last week, but which conservative activists opposed. On other issues, like abortion, Cotham has expressed a willingness to compromise but an opposition to the most conservative proposals.
However, she does align with the Republican caucus on at least one key issue: school choice. Cotham is a former grade school teacher and prioritizes education as an issue in particular. The legislature is set to review a proposal to expand school choice programs later this year, and Cotham is an advocate of this approach. This places her at odds with her former caucus, which places a major priority on supporting public education exclusively. Even more moderate Democrats like Roy Cooper have proposed blanking school voucher funding entirely.
What made Cotham switch?
Cotham’s party switch seems to be motivated primarily by attacks leveled against her by fellow Democrats. Cotham missed a vote on the repeal of the pistol permit, which passed 71-46 in the House. Cotham attributed her absence to long COVID; Democrats, including progressive advocacy group Carolina Forward, alleged she was lying and threatened primary challenges.
Democratic House leader Robert Reives also appeared to threaten primary challenges by stating that the voters who wanted a change in gun policy should vote in the 2024 general election and primaries. According to journalist Bryan Anderson, Cotham said that her family and children had faced “cruel” attacks following the vote. Fellow Democrat Rep. Cecil Brockman, who also missed the vote, said that he didn’t blame Cotham for switching parties “one bit”. In an interview, Brockman said that “when you’re constantly talked about and trashed — especially the way that we have been over the past few weeks — I think this is what happens”.
The threat of redistricting might also have played into this decision. If the North Carolina Supreme Court allows it, the state’s legislative lines might be redrawn. This could shift Cotham’s Biden+23 seat into a hypercompetitive seat that would have voted for Thom Tillis and Ted Budd. Rather than risk running and losing in ancestrally Republican turf, Cotham might have decided it would be better to join the other side.
How does this impact North Carolina politics?
The impact of this party switch might be surprisingly minimal. Cotham can’t be expected to be a certain Republican vote on every issue. However, because North Carolina’s veto override only requires 3/5th of votes, not 72 votes total, Republicans don’t need 72 votes every time. If even a single Democrat is absent in the House, a veto can potentially be overridden. Cotham provides a stronger buffer for Republicans to hold override votes.
But more importantly, Republicans already have a supermajority of sorts. Democrats – like Cotham – have been willing to cross party lines on some controversial issues. This flexibility is what led House Speaker Tim Moore to label the party as having an “effective supermajority”. While Cotham’s party switch gives Republicans a true numerical supermajority, it might not actually have a massive impact on what legislation is taken up or passed.
If anything, the biggest impact might be giving other Democrats more leeway to change their votes; if a bill is going to pass anyway, it’s less of a problem to support it, after all. And with potential redistricting on the line, a number of Democrats in marginal districts might be willing to vote with the majority to bolster crossover appeal.