North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is used to campaigning in a tough environment. For most of his time in office, the two-term Democrat has had to deal with a Republican-controlled legislature, and his only real defense, as the legislature has passed bills to lift the state’s school mask mandate in early February and restrict mail-in voting, has been his veto pen.
Cooper is not on the ballot this year—he won reelection in 2020 and is term-limited. But his and his party’s agenda is on the ballot, and in a major way: Republicans could regain a supermajority in the state legislature, which would enable them to pass extremist legislation, notably on voting rights, and then override vetoes from the governor’s mansion. And they’re dangerously close to making that a reality.
“They need to flip two seats in the Senate and three in the House to have a supermajority,” Cooper said in an interview. “Voting rights will be on the chopping block if Republicans regain a supermajority in the state legislature. For the last decade, North Carolina’s been ground zero for Republicans’ efforts to, in effect, manipulate elections.”
On voting rights, a supermajority would mean Republicans would move to install voter ID requirements and place limits on same-day voter registration, provisional ballots, early voting periods, and other provisions that expand the franchise and make voting easier.
In his six years in office, Cooper—who has been a reasonably popular governor, with an approval rating around 48 percent and a 34 percent disapproval rating—has been at frequent loggerheads with the state legislature, and the veto pen has oftentimes been his only defense. Since Democrats broke the supermajority in 2018, Cooper has vetoed 47 bills, none of which have been overridden. Before that, between 2017 and 2018, Cooper vetoed 28 bills, 23 of which were overridden and became law, according to his office.
Currently, North Carolina Republicans control 28 of the 50 seats in the state Senate and 69 of the 120 seats in the state’s House. Cooper knows that most of his legacy as governor could be wiped out if Republicans control the 60 percent of the legislative seats in both chambers required to override. “They’ve held off on some of their worst legislation,” Cooper continued. “Not only on election law, but access to reproductive freedom.” In 2019, Republicans failed to override Cooper’s veto on a bill that would have banned abortions because of “a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome in a fetus,” according to the Associated Press. But if Republicans exceed the override threshold, Cooper says, “they’re just waiting to gain a supermajority because they know right now they would not be successful with that legislation, because I’ll veto it and Democrats will be there to sustain a veto.”
Cooper’s power as a governor has been in danger from the earliest days of his time in office. After he won the governorship, the previous governor, Republican Pat McCrory, signed legislation from the GOP-controlled legislature watering down a North Carolina governor’s power. The job was already weaker than some other governorships.
The state has been one of the main arenas for clashes over drawing congressional maps. Those fights have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2017 ruled that congressional maps in North Carolina were drawn with racial motivations in mind.
The expectation is that Republicans would do that, and more, all over again. “The entire Republican effort on redistricting was to gerrymander Senate districts so that they can turn to a supermajority,” said state Senator Dan Blue, a Democrat. “If you look at the past decade, the Republicans in North Carolina were on the cutting and leading edge of passing bad voting laws. So if they get a supermajority, they will revert back to passing even worse voting laws.”
The implications of this go beyond North Carolina politics. The state is one of the swingiest of swing states. Joe Biden lost the state and its 15 electoral votes in 2020 by less than a full percentage point. That’s continued a pattern of the state going for the Republican nominee for president by a minuscule number of votes in the last three elections. No president has won the state by more than a few percentage points since 2004. Barack Obama, the last Democrat to win North Carolina in a presidential election, beat John McCain with 49.70 percent to 49.38 percent. Changing the state’s voting laws in a more restrictive way could make a Democratic win nearly impossible.
When Democrats do win in North Carolina, it’s partially thanks to support among minority voters. In 2020, Biden got 92 percent of the Black vote in North Carolina and 57 percent of the Latino vote. Trump dominated among white voters with 66 percent, while Biden got 33 percent, according to CNN exit poll data. North Carolina has become more diverse in recent years, with the percentage of the population that is Hispanic rising to double digits and gains among the percentage of the population that is Asian as well. The percentage of Hispanics grew from 8.4 percent to 10.7 percent. The percentage of the population that is Asian has grown from 2.2 percent to 3.3 percent. The African American population shrank slightly, from about 21 percent to 20.2 percent.
At stake are more than just voting rights and abortion. Late last month, GOP state Representative Destin Hall ticked off another high priority if his party regains a veto-proof majority: pushing sheriffs and other local law enforcement officials to be more aggressive about uprooting immigrants if their immigration status is unclear. Polling also shows the Republican nominees for two state Supreme Court seats leading their Democratic opponents.
These are the kinds of restrictive changes this current highly conservative Republican Party is salivating over. In effect, the state would more resemble a deep-red one like Missouri than the light blue or light red (depending on how you see it) Southern battleground it’s been in recent years.
“Midterms are hard because most people think about voting in presidential years,” Cooper said. “We’re telling people that this may be the biggest election of their lifetime and there has never been a bigger difference between Democrats and Republicans than there is right now. And yes, it is urgent for people to go to the polls to protect their rights and freedoms, and we’re letting them know that these down-ballot races will do more to determine what will happen in their everyday life than maybe even the presidential.”