JACK: Hi, this is Jack (ph). I'm here in - on the Fones Cliffs of the Rappahannock River in Warsaw, Va., working for the Rappahannock tribe, planting over 1,800 trees. This podcast was recorded at...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
1:08 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16.
JACK: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be here with my bag of seedlings and my shovel, hoping to have a little less runoff go into the Rappahannock River. OK, here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KEITH: This is quite appropriate. My son had his Virginia studies test today, and we have been studying a lot about things including the Rappahannock River and the Rappahannock tribe. So there you go.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I don't get some states - you know, Virginia studies. Texas does Texas studies. I didn't do that in New York. It's a weird thing.
KEITH: Oh, I did California studies.
MONTANARO: OK, well...
KEITH: I had to make a mission...
MONTANARO: ...I guess every state's exceptional.
KEITH: ...With Styrofoam. Other people did sugar cubes. Hey there. It's THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
KEITH: And Steve Harrison is with us. He's the politics and government reporter for NPR member station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C. Hey, Steve.
STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Hey, everybody. Thanks for having me on.
KEITH: Glad to have you here. It has been a busy few weeks in North Carolina politics. The state's Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, recently vetoed a bill that would ban abortions in the state after 12 weeks of pregnancy. But the state's legislature has veto-proof Republican majorities in both houses. As a result, they are expected to override that veto as early as today. So, Steve, let us start from the beginning. Is this a surprise? Like, did Republicans run on abortion as an issue in 2022 when they were running for the legislature, or did this come out of nowhere?
HARRISON: I mean, I would say it wasn't something that they particularly ran on as, you know, like, vote for us. We are going to put more restrictions in. But it also wasn't a surprise either. I mean, this was coming. The legislative leaders had talked about it. So it's not a surprise from kind of a statewide perspective. What is a surprise is there are a handful of members in the General Assembly who had kind of campaigned on, I'm not going to roll back abortion rights. They were pretty clear about that. And it looks like, with this override vote, that - and previous votes - they're going to do that, so at an individual level, some very big surprises.
KEITH: I do want to ask in particular - we mentioned that Republicans have supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. That was not the case on, you know, the day after the election, 2022. So tell us what happened.
HARRISON: Republicans had a supermajority in the state Senate, but they were one seat short in the House. And very quickly after that, the House speaker, Tim Moore, was like, you know what? We have what I call a working supermajority. We think there's going to be a handful of Democrats who are going to come over with us, which was the case. But then the big bombshell was there is a woman from Mecklenburg County which is, you know, the home to Charlotte, the biggest city. And she was a lifelong Democrat, was elected from a heavily Democratic district, and then earlier this year, Tricia Cotham announced that she is now a Republican. That gave them the official supermajority. Now they didn't need any help from Democrats. And then really soon after that, they introduced this bill to, you know, restrict abortion from - down to 12 weeks.
KEITH: It would seem that abortion is the kind of issue where a politician would know their position and would know the implications, obviously, of changing parties. So what happened with this representative? It seems like a pretty dramatic shift.
HARRISON: Yeah, I mean, a huge shift, and everyone is kind of wondering that too. Tricia Cotham campaigned in November on upholding Roe - was very clear about that in public statements on her campaign website. When she came into the General Assembly in January, she voted with the other Democrats to kind of codify Roe. And, you know, and then even, like, last decade, she had served previously in the House. She gave this dramatic speech where she talked about her own abortion that she had for medical reasons.
So Democrats here are kind of pulling their hair out because just three months ago, she was very clear about her position. And then when she switched parties, she said, well, you know - that abortion isn't the singular most important issue for women, but she hasn't really addressed the change that much. She's kind of avoided the question. But yeah, like I said, I mean, her movement from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party has made this possible.
MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, when you switch parties - you know, this is one of those threshold issues, these litmus test issues, for the Republican Party in particular. You know, I believe this representative had mentioned at some point earlier this year before she'd switched parties that she would - could be in favor of some restrictions that were tighter than the 20 weeks but wouldn't go as low as 13 weeks, for example. So we're splitting some pretty fine hairs here when it's very important to women across the country, and especially in North Carolina as this bill relates, as to when they know they're pregnant and when they would be able to have access to an abortion.
KEITH: I want to run through some just quick logistical questions here, Steve. Is there any chance that this veto override doesn't happen?
HARRISON: The state Senate is going to take it up Tuesday afternoon, and it's expected they will vote to uphold the override - not much drama there. After that, the House will take it up. That's where there's been a little bit of uncertainty. I don't think people think that there will be a defection from the Republican Party. But in addition to Tricia Cotham, there were two other representatives who had also made kind of campaign statements that they had no interest in further restrictions. So Governor Roy Cooper, the Democrat, had made this tour around the state to try and drum up support, to get people to call them, to - you know, to say, look, it only needs one. We only need one Republican to break ranks and uphold my veto. So we'll see. But people - there's going to be a little drama, but I think most people think that the veto will be overridden.
KEITH: And if this were to be allowed to go into effect, do you know when the restrictions would start?
HARRISON: July 1.
KEITH: All right.
HARRISON: So pretty quick.
KEITH: I want to ask about North Carolina as a state that, in recent months, because of the Dobbs decision and because states in the Deep South instituted very strict abortion bans and restrictions, North Carolina had become something of a destination for people seeking abortion care. Do you think that if this 12-week ban were to go into place, that would change?
HARRISON: Yeah, it absolutely had become this destination, because if you look throughout the Deep South, I mean, you either have full bans or six-week bans. So for hundreds of thousands and millions of women, North Carolina is the closest place to get an abortion. Now, then this is what I think is going to be really interesting is, you know, in terms of what the 12-week will mean to that. I think it probably still will be somewhat of a destination, right?
I mean, it's - if it's still - it's the most kind of liberal abortion laws in the Deep South - you know, I think the CDC has said about 90% of abortions in this country happen in the first trimester. So I think people will continue to come to North Carolina. You know, and I'm going to wonder, too - I mean, this is kind of getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. But will North Carolina - will the state go farther in the future to maybe go from 12 to six?
KEITH: All right, we're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more on the politics of this.
And we're back. And we've been talking about how red states moved very quickly to institute strict abortion bans after the Dobbs decision. But North Carolina has been somewhat slower, and the ban that could go into effect in July is a 12-week ban, which is still more lenient than many other red states, certainly. But part of that, I guess, is that North Carolina isn't, strictly speaking, a red state. It's a little more purple. Domenico, can you talk through the dynamics of the politics in this state?
MONTANARO: Sure. I mean, North Carolina is a state that Barack Obama won in 2008. It had been a state that had been fairly Republican for a long time. There have been some demographic shifts that have changed the dynamic of the state. Republicans have won, though, in 2016 and 2020. Former President Trump won both times there. They've had some success, obviously, in Senate races. You have a Democratic governor there currently.
But, you know, just because Republicans have won it in the last two presidential elections doesn't mean that it's not the kind of state that Republicans have to work at to win, because this is a place - it was, you know, fewer than two percentage points that decided it for Biden and Trump. And that's going to mean millions of dollars in the 2024 presidential election. We've seen Democratic voters be fired up by this abortion issue and independents, who make up a significant chunk of North Carolina voters, who have seen Trump and feel that his brand is toxic.
KEITH: Steve, I would like you to weigh in here on why you think it is that the Republican state legislature just didn't go all the way to a six-week ban or an outright ban like other states have?
HARRISON: Yeah, I think a couple things are going on. One, I do think inside their own caucus, there was a lot of division as to where to land on this. And then I think there's another thing going on in North Carolina. If you go back to 2016, I mean, do you remember House Bill 2, that really controversial piece of legislation that, you know, mandated people go to the bathroom that matched the sex on their birth certificate? North Carolina, I mean, received tremendous amount of criticism for that. I mean, it was just such a devastating period for the state.
Since then, the Republican leadership has kind of pulled back a bit. I mean, they let other states go first on a lot of controversial issues. They kind of, you know, let them take the heat. North Carolina follows. And I think there was something similar with this 12-week ban that, you know, look, their view is they kind of say - point to the other states in the South and other places and say, look, what we're doing is very reasonable. You know, hey, this is a great compromise. They've used that word a lot.
KEITH: I do want to get to the potential 2024 presidential politics of all of this. I was talking to the Biden campaign, and they said that they plan to try to compete in North Carolina in 2024 and that they expect this abortion ban to be a very live issue in that election, that they think that it will draw independent and certainly Democratic voters and motivate them. You also have a governor's race that's going to be happening in 2024. Do you have any sense of how this might play with the electorate?
HARRISON: Well, just the first thing - I'll just start off - I mean, when - the idea that Biden is going to compete in North Carolina. I mean, North Carolina Democrats are so thrilled because in this last race in 2022, Democrats here felt like the national party and the national groups kind of abandoned them in their Senate race between Cheri Beasley and Ted Budd. That they didn't get the support they needed. And as a result of that - as the result of not getting that support, Republicans did really well in these state legislative races. And, you know, that has kind of put them in this position to pass these abortion restrictions.
In terms of how it's going to play, I mean, I think this is really going to be fascinating because, what will this mean? What will a 12-week ban - how are voters going to respond to that? And I don't think either party really knows. I think overall abortion is going to be a tremendous issue. It's going to motivate a lot of people. Will it be any particular - you know, will it be any different in North Carolina or extra juice there? I mean, I don't know. I think it's going to be fascinating to see.
KEITH: Well - and, Domenico, let's just talk about whether the Biden people are really serious about competing in North Carolina or whether they really need to win it or think they can win it.
MONTANARO: Well, first, you know, it is a really interesting point about, you know, investing in states because of what can happen in legislatures when you have a key Senate race. You know, when I talked to national Democrats, they, you know, noted that it was a close race for the Senate, but they only had so many resources to go around, and that was fairly controversial. To the presidential election though, there aren't going to be those same kind of limits on funds for the most part. For the most part, we're looking at a multibillion-dollar affair here. And in North Carolina, likely to see millions upon millions of dollars spent.
It is a stretch state. I would say it's not a state that Biden has to win in order to win the presidency, but certainly there are so many electoral votes that they would be silly to ignore it, not test the waters, figure out whether or not that abortion message resonates, figure out if Trump, in fact, is the nominee, whether or not his brand proves to be toxic or if, you know, Trump, as he's done before, pulls it out twice and has better favorability ratings than Democrats think he might. So clearly, they're going to compete there. It's not a must-win, but it's certainly one that they're going to be involved in.
KEITH: Is there an element of three-dimensional chess here, where Democrats would be happy to have abortion as a front-of-mind issue in a state like North Carolina that is potentially a swing state or, you know, Wisconsin or any of these other must-win or should-win states in a presidential race?
MONTANARO: You know, you're playing with fire with that kind of thing, particularly when politics is supposed to be about solving problems or, you know, pushing a direction that you want to go in. But I will say that when you have very extreme results, something like a - you know, a six-week abortion ban or where abortion bans are on the ballot, for example, we've seen Democratic voters or pro-abortion-rights voters suddenly vote Democratic.
KEITH: Not even Democrats.
MONTANARO: Exactly. And I think that that is something that politically - just raw politics-wise - Democrats still feel they have the wind at their back on the abortion rights issue.
KEITH: Steve, how are North Carolina voters and residents responding to this potential change?
HARRISON: So I would say that - you know, I'm going to go back. We talked about Representative Tricia Cotham earlier.
HARRISON: The biggest amount of kind of rage or fury or passion on this issue came right when she announced her party flip, you know, because people realized what it meant for abortion. I mean, I feel like, just kind of watching it, that was the peak of emotion on this issue. Now, the governor, we talked about - he did that kind of tour around the state, trying to rally support. There wasn't a lot of attendance or juice behind those events. But when he held his ceremony recently to veto this legislation, there was a large crowd rally. There was a lot of passion. I think that - just as we've all been saying here - people won't move on. This will be a big deal in 2024, just as it was in last year's election. When that representative switched, that was the moment 'cause people realized what it meant.
KEITH: Lots to watch here. Steve Harrison, politics and government reporter from member station WFAE in Charlotte, thanks so much.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.