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The fate of North Carolina's abortion bill is far from certain
Swing district GOP members face unprecedented pressure campaign to change their votes
After months of internal discussions, General Assembly leaders unveiled a bill last week that would begin protecting the lives of unborn children at 12 weeks of pregnancy. It moved quickly through both chambers and now sits on the governor’s desk.
The bill is significantly more moderate than legislation enacted in other Southern states, and it seems designed to be able to withstand Gov. Roy Cooper's certain veto.
However, that outcome is far from certain.
While General Assembly leaders say they have the votes, several Republican representatives in swing districts have publicly campaigned on keeping North Carolina's abortion laws as they are. One, in particular, has boxed himself into a tight corner — vowing on the campaign trail to defy GOP leadership when an abortion bill came up for a vote.
His vote appears to be the key that will decide whether the bill succeeds or fails. And he now faces an unprecedented pressure campaign from both sides of the aisle.
Here's what you need to know about the bill and its prospects.
The changing abortion landscape
The last time North Carolina enacted a significant abortion law was in 1973, when the Democratic majority passed a bill that set a cut-off for abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy. That was the same year Roe v. Wade was decided, which pushed the cut-off out to the point of viability, between 24 and 28 weeks.
When Roe v. Wade fell last year, North Carolina essentially reverted back to that 1973 law. But a lot has changed since then, both politically and scientifically.
Ultrasound technology has become widespread, giving parents and doctors a better view of how babies develop in the womb. These scientific advances have animated the pro-life movement, which hinges on the realization that fetuses are vulnerable children who deserve protection.
But the political conversation has shifted dramatically, as well. Abortion was once widely viewed as a necessary evil, and Democrats and Republicans varied significantly in their views on how it should be legislated. Pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans existed across the country.
Today, the left celebrates abortion as a positive good, and there are vanishingly view pro-life Democrats left. On the flip side, Republicans have become increasingly pro-life, and the issue has become a core part of the conservative movement.
The people of North Carolina largely fall between the two sides. Polling indicates that North Carolinians are broadly uneasy with the concept of abortion, but also wary of changing the status quo. They want restrictions and are open to making them tighter than they are today. However, they do not want to end the practice entirely.
Against that backdrop comes this year's legislative session. The fall of Roe v. Wade essentially forces states to make a decision on the issue. Blue states have expanded access to abortion, in several cases up to the point of birth.
Red states have largely chosen to adopt "heartbeat bills" that protect unborn children between 6 and 8 weeks of pregnancy.
About North Carolina's bill
North Carolina's abortion bill, Senate Bill 20, also falls between the two sides.
The bill essentially sets the cut-off for abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy, around the end of the first trimester. However, there are exceptions that allow abortions later in pregnancy if the mother's life is at risk, or in cases of rape, incest, or fetal abnormality.
There are also new requirements for medication abortions to include more in-person visits and more disclosure of the details and risks involved.
Liberal activists and Attorney General Josh Stein have claimed the bill will force abortion clinics to shut down across the state, but there is no evidence that this is true. The bill also allows some 80% of abortions in North Carolina to continue.
Still, the bill represents a step in a pro-life direction.
"Abortion is not a solution to the challenges that women face. It is a tragic and irreversible act of violence that ends the life of an innocent child," Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance) said on the floor last week. "We must work to create a society that values and supports women rather than pushing them toward abortion as a solution."
To that end, the bill also includes more than $180 million in additional spending to support pregnant women and children after they're born. This includes childcare subsidies, adoption assistance, education assistance for parents, efforts to reduce infant and maternal mortality, and more paid maternity and paternity leave for state workers.
A 12-week cut-off means the bill is a disappointment to many pro-life voters who had hoped for more protections for babies in the womb. But any tightening of abortion restrictions is anathema to the Democratic Party, and they've reacted in outrage to the bill.
Gov. Roy Cooper's pressure campaign
Leading the charge is Gov. Roy Cooper, who will veto the bill now that it is on his desk. He is also mounting a pressure campaign on four Republican General Assembly members he believes may ultimately decide to sustain his veto. Just one defection in either chamber would kill a veto override.
Here they are, in order of likelihood of defecting, from least likely to most likely.
Sen. Michael Lee of New Hanover County
Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County
Rep. John Bradford of Mecklenburg County
Rep. Ted Davis of New Hanover County
Lee seems like a safe bet to vote to override the veto. While he narrowly won a swing district, he's been upfront about his stance on the abortion issue. In an op-ed penned in the (Wilmington) StarNews last fall, he said he supports setting the cut-off at the end of the first trimester. Senate Bill 20 does that.
Cotham is a more unusual case. She was elected as a Democrat last fall, but became a Republican after being ostracized and shunned by her former party for failing to fall into line with all of its stances.
As a Democrat, she was endorsed by several pro-abortion groups, and she's spoken in the past about wanting politicians to be "unwavering and unapologetic in their support of abortion rights." However, the Republican caucus must have designed Senate Bill 20 with her support at the top of mind, and she voted in favor of it on the House floor last week.
As for Bradford, he's the representative of a swingy suburban Charlotte district and the lone General Assembly member to be elected from the area in the last few cycles. He told Axios Charlotte last fall that he supports the status quo and that he had "no intentions myself of going back to Raleigh and trying to make the 20 weeks more restrictive.”
But that answer leaves plenty of wiggle room. He was not the driving force behind this bill and did not say he wouldn't vote for efforts to tighten abortion restrictions. He voted in favor of Senate Bill 20 last week, as well.
Rep. Ted Davis is boxed in a corner
And then there's Davis. He presents the most difficult case and seems to be the most likely to kill this bill.
Davis is one of several representatives from New Hanover County, whose swing district includes parts of Wilmington and smaller beach towns.
On the campaign trail, he was adamant about his support for keeping abortion laws as-is.
On a podcast episode with the New Hanover County Republican Party last October, Davis said he wanted to keep the status quo. "I support what the law is in North Carolina right now," he said. He cast himself as a moderate on the issue, between the far left and far right.
But in a candidate forum with WECT, he went even further. He reiterated his stance on the current law, but then said he would defy pressure from his caucus to change North Carolina's abortion law. You can view his remarks at about the 50-minute mark of this video.
“The Speaker does not tell me what to do,” he said, growing more animated as he went.
“I'm not going to be influenced because the Speaker of the House might say what he might want to do. That in no way shape or form means that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to vote to keep it just the way it is.”
Davis did not vote on Senate Bill 20 in the House last week. He's listed as an "excused absence," though he was present for a vote on another bill just 6 minutes before.
What comes next?
Longleaf Politics reached out to Davis to talk about his potential override vote, but he did not respond.
Politically, Davis has boxed himself into a tight corner — and it's unclear why he put himself in this position. His stance didn't stop the Democratic candidate in the race from hitting him on the abortion issue. He could easily have given himself more wiggle room without damaging himself politically.
But here we are.
Republican leadership has undoubtedly talked with Davis about how he will vote. Perhaps he has gotten assurances that his district will be drawn more friendly to him later this year. House Speaker Tim Moore has said he feels confident all 72 Republicans will vote to override the upcoming veto.
But votes can change, and Davis's seems the most uncertain. When the bill comes up for an override vote in the House, it will almost certainly be dramatic.
3 things of note
Josh Stein pushes back against "soft on crime" image
What's happening: The same day the N.C. GOP released a graphic blasting Attorney General Josh Stein as "soft on crime," the Democratic candidate for governor released a slate of proposals that he said are necessary to make North Carolina safer.
"Protecting the people of this state has to be job one," Stein said.
His recommendations include:
Passing a "red flag" law to seize guns from people considered a danger to themselves or others
Raise the age to 21 to purchase firearms
Adding prosecutors to try fentanyl traffickers
Paying signing bonuses to new law enforcement officers
Creating a "cold case unit" to prosecute older crimes
Requiring body cams for all law enforcement officers
Stein also advocated for more funding for school nurses and counselors — but notably did not recommend any money for resource officers.
The proposals are almost entirely for show: The General Assembly's legislative business reached an inflection point last week with the crossover deadline. Bills that haven't passed one chamber stand virtually no chance of making it into law this session - so there's really no time for any of Stein's proposals to be considered.
Why this matters: Still, the proposals represent Stein pivoting toward the middle and filling in the tough-on-crime lane that has been successful for Democrats in a gubernatorial race. Most of these proposals are popular, and none are truly controversial. Candidates have to be able to respond to attacks thrown their way, and Stein has likely done enough to neuter criticisms that he is soft on crime.
What comes next: The NCGOP should continue to hit Stein on the crime issue, but it won't be enough. A richer vein of attack on Stein will be on his elite background and being out-of-touch with North Carolina. We discussed that quite a bit in this article.
How a Biden-Trump rematch could help Mark Robinson
What's happening: The very top of the 2024 ticket could end up helping Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson win the governor's race. If current trends hold and the presidential race is a Biden-Trump rematch, the state's small group of swing voters could ultimately decide to stay home. And in a base election, Robinson could have an advantage. Robinson is very popular among the Republican base, while Attorney General Josh Stein simply is not. That's what Republican consultant Jonathan Felts argued on last week's "Tying it Together" podcast with Spectrum News's Tim Boyum.
"A lot of these folks, their first big decision is will they go vote? And I think if you have Trump vs Biden part two, a lot of these folks might not even go vote," said Felts, who helped U.S. Sen. Ted Budd win his race in 2022. "It turns into a classic case of a base election, which is an overused cliche, but I think Mark Robinson and Donald Trump turn out the Republican base with a lot more enthusiasm than what Biden and Stein do."
Why this matters: With Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in a commanding position in the GOP primary for governor in 2024, Republicans have largely turned their attention toward figuring out a path for him to win the general election. The conventional wisdom is that he'll have a tough time, facing a well-funded Democrat who will spend millions of dollars to cast Robinson as "too extreme" for North Carolina.
What comes next: The presidential primary is far from settled, and a lot can change between now and 2024. But these arguments are worth keeping an eye on as the jockeying for position continues.
Charlotte tries to sneak in a major tax extension
What's happening: The city of Charlotte tried to quietly extend a pair of temporary sales taxes by another 30 years, WFAE reporter Steve Harrison uncovered last week. They include a 1% tax on food and beverages and a 2% tax on hotel rooms, generating some $70 million per year. The taxes were created to help pay for the Charlotte Convention Center and NASCAR Hall of Fame, respectively, and were to expire in the 2030s as debt payments wrapped up. But the city of Charlotte has gradually expanded the rules on where this tax money can be used, primarily to help pay for major renovations at Bank of America Stadium.
To keep the money flowing, Charlotte lobbied Mecklenburg County Republican Rep. John Bradford to sponsor a bill that would extend these taxes until 2060.
Why this matters: It's clear that the city of Charlotte wanted to avoid a discussion on this issue, so it's a tremendous public service that Harrison uncovered this and brought it to light. Government taxes and programs have the bad habit of becoming perpetual, even when they were intended to be temporary. A 30-year extension of a sales tax absolutely deserves a critical discussion.
What comes next: The bill has yet to come up for a vote in the House, where it was filed. The General Assembly has typically taken a hard line on tax increases desired by local governments, so there's a good chance it will not pass now that the issue has come to light.
1 good idea from another state
States considering legislation that allows people to voluntarily disqualify themselves from buying firearms
A small but growing number of states are considering bills that would allow people to voluntarily and temporarily disqualify themselves from buying firearms if they're concerned they may pose a danger to themselves or others. Known as "Donna's Law," the legislation creates a process for people to sign themselves up for the program. If they go to buy a firearm while on the list, their background check flags the application and prevents them from purchasing one.
Over the past five years, Utah, Virginia and Washington state have passed versions of this law. Maryland has considered the legislation this year.
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