GOP faces critical test on abortion in North Carolina

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North Carolina Republican lawmakers face a key test of loyalty as they prepare to override the governor’s veto of a bill that shortens the period in which a pregnancy can be terminated. It’s a vote that could cost both sides of the aisle.

Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a 12-week abortion ban over the weekend, setting up the GOP for a razor-thin override vote that will require total unity.

“This bill will create dangerous interference with the doctor-patient relationship, leading to harm for pregnant women and their families,” Cooper said while announcing his veto at a rally with the North Carolina Reproductive Freedom Coalition, where roughly 2,000 people were in attendance. “With its medically unnecessary obstacles and restrictions, it will make abortion unavailable to many women, particularly those with lower incomes, those who live in rural areas, and those who already have limited access to health care.”

The North Carolina Senate is scheduled to vote to override Cooper’s veto Tuesday afternoon, followed by the state House.

The bill passed along party lines earlier this month. If ratified, not only would abortions be prohibited past 12 weeks — a steep drop from the state’s current 20-week limit — patients and providers would also face additional requirements to terminate pregnancies.

Individuals seeking medical abortions would have one fewer week to take medicines, down from 11 weeks to 10, and also be required to have an additional in-person appointment after taking the course of drugs.

Abortion clinics could also be subject to additional requirements, such as needing an “ambulatory surgical center” license to operate. This change, which the North Carolina Medical Society blasted as “administratively burdensome,” could result in clinics shutting down.

Party flip allowed for possible veto override

The situation in the Tar Heel State wouldn’t have been feasible until one lawmaker’s blindsiding decision last month.

N.C. state Rep. Tricia Cotham, elected in November as a Democrat, shocked the state political system when she announced she would join the Republican Party. The flip gave the GOP a veto-proof majority in the House, adding to its Senate supermajority.

Cotham had campaigned on abortion rights, even sharing her own experience with having the procedure in a medically-necessary situation, but she voted with the majority to pass the 12-week ban.

<em><sup>North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham announces she is switching affiliation to the Republican Party at a news conference April 5 at the North Carolina Republican Party headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. The change gives Republican state legislators a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)</sup></em>
North Carolina state Rep. Tricia Cotham announces she is switching affiliation to the Republican Party at a news conference April 5 at the North Carolina Republican Party headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. The change gives Republican state legislators a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

Cooper has called on constituents to reach out to their representatives in an attempt to get just one member of the majority to defect in voting to override the veto, but the effort may not be enough.

“This has never been a question. They are going to override,” Dallas Woodhouse, former executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, told The Hill.

“I suspect that the Speaker of the House actually has a couple of Democrats in the back of his pocket if he needed,” Woodhouse said, referring to state House Speaker Tim Moore (R).

GOP sees bill as compromise, Democrats don’t

Pundits and media outlets have noted that Republican enthusiasm for this vote was rather low, but inaction was not a viable alternative for the party.

“I think the Republicans have been very, you know, skilled in this. I mean, I don’t think it’s ever an issue anybody’s jumping up and down to deal with it, but Republicans had to deal with it. Doing nothing wasn’t going to be an option for them,” said Woodhouse, adding that the bill represented as much of a “middle ground or a consensus” that the state legislature could reach.

Julie Mayfield, North Carolina Senate Democratic Caucus secretary, pushed back against that description, saying it was a compromise “for them but not for me.”

“The line that this is a 12-week ban is a lie. It is absolutely a lie, and it is not a compromise bill that the people of North Carolina … asked for or wanted,” Mayfield said.

She argued that the measure banning medical abortions at 10 weeks invalidated the 12 weeks provided by the bill. More than half of all abortions are performed with medications, and Mayfield noted that most people don’t know they’re pregnant at even six weeks.

The abbreviated timeline, combined with the added appointment requirements and potential wait time to see a provider, would cause a “radical reduction” in abortion access, said Mayfield, effectively enacting a six- or eight-week ban.

According to Woodhouse, even if a Republican were to oppose the override and no Democrats sided with the majority, the party could easily wait for a more favorable makeup of lawmakers to come about in the legislature.

This vote, however, could very well jeopardize the GOP’s iron grip on the state government in the 2024 election cycle. As Cooper has noted, some state Republicans in 2022 campaigned on maintaining the state’s 20-week limit. An override vote could be used by Democrats to accuse GOP members of going back on their word, threatening the party’s supermajority.

“Folks across the state, we have to educate them strongly about what Senate Bill 20 is and trying to make sure that they are advocating to their legislators that this is not what North Carolinians voted for,” Anderson Clayton, chairperson of the North Carolina Democratic Party, told The Hill.

Clayton was frank when discussing immediate actions that Democrats could take in response to an override, noting that North Carolina’s largely conservative courts likely won’t provide a good avenue to challenge the bill. Instead, she said state Democrats would lean into bringing about a statewide referendum on abortion in 2024.

Maintaining abortion access proved to be popular at state ballots following the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. Voters in California, Vermont and Michigan all approved ballot measures enshrining abortion access in their state constitutions.

Recent polling suggests North Carolina is no different. Survey results released in February by Meredith College found that 57.1 percent of registered voters favored maintaining the 20-week limit or expanding it, while 34.7 percent of voters said they were in favor of further limiting abortion access to some degree.

Demi Dowdy, spokesperson for state Speaker Moore, said the 12-week limit in the bill reflected where most North Carolinians stood on the issue. Dowdy also pointed to the incentives for prenatal care that were included along with grants for free contraceptives, which she noted Cooper has made no mention of.

“By calling out specific Republicans in swing districts, Governor Cooper seems to believe he can pressure these Republican members into voting his way, just as he has bullied members of his own party,” Dowdy said.

“The Speaker has always encouraged each of our members to vote their conscience on behalf of their constituents, and he is confident they will continue to do just that. We will ultimately override the governor’s veto of SB 20 when the time comes.”

No Republican legislators have come forward to say they will oppose the override, making the passage of the bill all but certain. Democratic lawmakers are hopeful that the law can be delayed for some time by lower courts.

“We have to hope the attorneys can get an injunction,” North Carolina state Sen. Graig Meyer (D) told The Hill. “Either way, it’s going to be the top issue in next year’s election. And I feel strongly that the GOP base will keep demanding they move farther away from what most voters will tolerate.”

Mayfield echoed these sentiments, adding that Republicans will “pay for this in 2024.”

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