For six years, North Carolina has been a one-party state, governed by a Republican monolith bolstered by absurdly gerrymandered districts, a willingness to dispatch with inconvenient norms, and an unchecked lust for power.
The first cracks appeared in 2016, when Roy Cooper edged out Pat McCrory for governor. But those absurd gerrymanders maintained the Republicans’ legislative supermajorities, enabling them to override Cooper’s vetoes and render him impotent.
It was Phil Berger and Tim Moore’s world. Cooper just lived in it.
Then came November’s blue wave. Democrats did well enough to break the supermajorities—and, in a fairer world, they’d have done better than that. Despite the Dems winning more votes statewide, the Republicans kept control of the legislature. (After years of adverse court rulings, those gerrymanders weren’t as potent as they once were, but they still did the trick.)
So when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday, it will do so with a new and uncertain dynamic: a governor who finally matters; Democrats who are desperate to be taken seriously; Republicans who, having imposed their will since 2013, are eager to reassert their dominance.
The Dems’ improved position should put the kibosh on anything radical this session. Nothing like an HB 2 retread or a Roe-testing abortion bill will become law. Same goes for major tax reforms (at least the kind without bipartisan buy-in), or bills protecting agribusiness from nuisance lawsuits (like the legislature has passed the last two years), or further meddling in the Durham-Orange light-rail project.
But Republicans still run the show, which means progressive priorities are also off the table—although there may be some cards Cooper can play. He could, for instance, threaten to veto the budget until the GOP expands Medicaid, but that would require an unfamiliar kind of hardball for a gov who seems more comfortable sculpting an image as a consensus builder (see his wet-noodle handling of the HB 2 replacement).
Republicans, meanwhile, have every incentive to chip away at that image—to cast Cooper as a partisan hack, an ideologue to the left of Bernie Sanders—ahead of his reelection bid. So they’ll likely spend the session daring him to veto tax cuts and seeking to embarrass him through investigations that may or may not be in bad faith.
Such is politics: lots of posturing, lots of gridlock. The best-case scenario is a boring session, with big, pointless clashes grabbing headlines while mundane bills trudge their way through mundane processes, the state government plods along, and both sides gird up for next year’s war.
That war, we learned Friday, could be fought on vastly different terrain. The U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would take up partisan gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Maryland. If the court rules this spring that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts will be redrawn. But that seems unlikely. Indeed, as elections law expert Rick Hasen wrote in The Atlantic, the Roberts Court might eventually go the other direction and declare independent redistricting commissions unconstitutional, which would be a huge blow to the reform movement.
For now, reformers should have better luck at home, where Democrats hold a 5–2 edge on the N.C. Supreme Court. Earlier this month, a federal judge rejected the NCGOP’s ploy to block state courts from hearing a lawsuit arguing that partisan gerrymanders violate the state constitution, an apparent delay tactic to prevent new districts from being drawn before 2020—which would apply no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court decides.
With new districts, Democrats think they’d have a shot at an outright majority—and, if Cooper wins again, their own version of one-party control.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by phone at 919-286-1972, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman.