What Tricia Cotham’s switch to the GOP means for NC Democrats

By Theresa Opeka

Raleigh, NC – The news of Rep. Tricia Cotham, Mecklenburg County, changing her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican has sent shockwaves throughout the North Carolina politics, even making national headlines. The move now gives Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the General Assembly. The proverbial question is, how does it affect the state Democrat Party moving forward, including Gov. Roy Cooper?

“As a former Democrat, I understand her feelings about being thrown under the bus, and I think this sends an important signal to the statewide Democratic Party that if they want to be a big tent party, they have to make room for moderate centrist Democrats to have a place,” political consultant Brad Crone, president of Campaign Connections, told Carolina Journal in a Wednesday phone interview. 

He said he has followed her career since she began serving in the State House and believes her when she says she is a public servant. Cotham first served in the House from 2007-2017.

At a press conference Wednesday morning at NCGOP headquarters, Cotham said she felt unwelcome in the Democrat Party from the time she ran in the 2022 Primary. The attacks on her and her family, including her two young sons, only increased on Twitter and in person, prompting her change of political affiliation.

“There’s no place for that in our political system or in political speech there’s just no place for it at all,” said Crone. “I have seen it personally and understand it, and we have got to be respectful of people who may not agree with us in our political discourse. I thought (U.S. Sen. Dan) Bishop, whom I do not agree with probably on 80% of the issues, but I respect, I thought his comments were most appropriate.” Bishop spoke at Cotham’s press conference.

House Minority Leader Robert Reives and others had begun their take on her and others on March 29 after she, along with Reps. Michael Wray, D-Northampton, and Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, had missed voting on overriding Gov. Cooper’s veto on S.B. 41. Reives said in a press release “Elections have consequences” and said the only avenue to change would be through the primary and general elections of 2024. Reives and others called for her resignation after her announcement.

NCDP Party Chair Anderson Clayton called for Cotham’s resignation at a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

“This is about honesty and accountability to the people who elected her and serve in their best interests,” Clayton said. “I’m from a place where honesty means something, where folks are going to take you at your word. Your word ain’t good for a hill of beans if you’re not going to stick to it.”

Clayton, a 25-year-old progressive, was elected in February to lead the state party over establishment candidates. Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein both endorsed former Democratic Party Chair Bobbie Richardson, but party leaders elected Clayton instead. In the press conference, speakers questioned Cotham’s loyalty and policy positions, particularly on abortion access. 

“It is now our fervent hope that her vote on this issue, and so many other issues important to women across this state is not up for political grab,” said Elizabeth Goodwin, President of the Democratic Women of North Carolina.”We ask of Rep. Cotham that she let the same values that voters believed she possessed when they elected her, guide her future votes even if she no longer sticks to the same party.”

“The question of course remains will her voting patterns change along with her party affiliation?” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science & public affairs at Western Carolina University, in a phone interview with CJ Wednesday. 

“Abortion is an obvious example,” he said. “She’s been at the forefront of it because she made it clear that she was Pro-Choice in the past. Will she agree for some restrictions? Will she follow along with the Republican Party more often? I think these are the questions we all want to know the answer to.”

Regarding Gov. Cooper’s veto power, Cooper says “It has no teeth,” making him a lame duck in most instances.

Cooper said there’s also the question of her political future and if a Republican primary electorate will want to support a candidate who has been so vocally Pro-Choice and vocal on other issues that run counter to the mainstream of the Republican Party.

So, what do Cotham’s chances to win re-election look like in the future now that she has changed parties?

“Cotham would have difficulty winning as a Republican in her current district,” said Dr. Andy Jackson, director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation. “Locke’s Civitas Partisan Index rates it (House District 112) as safely Democratic (D+12). However, if the North Carolina Supreme Court rules in favor of the General Assembly in Harper v. Hall, she might find herself in an R+1 tossup district.”

Jackson said in either case, she could expect a lot of money to be thrown against her re-election bid.

“The Democrats say, well, we’ll beat her,” said Crone. “They are so ill-informed that they don’t realize there will be new maps, and with (Rep, John R.) Bradford leaving that’s going to give him some flexibility, so she could very well end up with a very nice district that will probably be competitive or lean a little R and give her an advantage, and she if she elects to run again, can stay in the General Assembly.” 

Bradford said he is considering running for state treasurer now that State Treasurer Dale Folwell is running for the Republican nomination for governor.

Another Raleigh political insider told CJ, on the condition of anonymity, that centrist voters of any race really do not have a place in today’s North Carolina Democratic Party, adding that (former Governor) “Jim Hunt Democrats” no longer exist in the state. 

Crone says the Democratic Party has to do a lot of self-inspection as to whether or not they want to have moderate centrist voters with voices and leadership roles in the party.

“Otherwise, you will not be able to build a coalition to govern in the governor’s position or ever think about taking back the legislature,” he said. “You cannot disenfranchise center-of-the-road, middle-of-the-road voters and expect to build the governing coalition. They have to decide if they want to be competitive in the legislature and competitive in statewide races by drawing middle-of-the-road centrist voters back to supporting Democrats.”

Party switching may not end with Cotham. Chris Cooper said there might be a couple of other Democrats who are considering a similar move, and it is something to keep an eye on moving forward.

“Party switching does happen, usually not with such critical short-term implications for public policy,” he said.