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Cooper’s veto strategy could ‘win’ over time, analysts say

Governor has not sustained a veto yet, but each time he rejects a bill, Democrats open their wallets and may be more likely to go to polls

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

Gov. Roy Cooper is on a pace that could rival former Gov. Bev Perdue’s record number of gubernatorial vetoes. But almost half of Perdue’s vetoes survived, while Cooper has yet to sustain a single one.

Political analysts say wins and losses aren’t the real prize, and Cooper is likely to continue issuing vetoes. The end game for Cooper is to rally his base of Democratic voters in the 2018 off-year elections to win enough seats in at least one legislative chamber to erase Republicans’ veto-proof supermajorities to make it possible to sustain his vetoes.

Democrats generally vote at a lower rate during off-year elections, said Thom Little, a political science professor at UNC-Greensboro.

“He’s got to get those folks motivated. He’s going to go at this election thing saying, ‘I’m trying to do what’s right by the state, but I can’t because of the supermajority,’ ” Little said.

“His base wants him to veto legislation that they disapprove of. It’s good politics, but it’s defining Cooper by what he believes in,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic campaign strategist, former congressional candidate, and author of the PoliticsNC blog.

Every time one of Cooper’s vetoes gets overridden his base gets fired up, Mills said, and the Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate are likely to continue fueling that passion by overturning his vetoes. Cooper’s more ardent supporters likely donate campaign money every time that happens.

“They’re going to talk about how they’re ready to fight, and social media is going to light up. I think that’s the point of it,” Mills said of the gubernatorial vetoes.

But even if Democrats turn out in 2018 in numbers sufficient to break up one of the legislative supermajorities, they might find that sustaining a veto is harder than they think.

“There’s a handful of Democrats that won’t necessarily follow the leadership,” Mills said.

Cooper has vetoed four bills: House Bill 467, limiting damages in agriculture and forestry nuisance suits mainly arising from complaints that hog farms affect neighbors’ property rights; House Bill 239, reducing the Court of Appeals to 12 judges; Senate Bill 68, creating a Bipartisan Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement; and House Bill 100, restoring partisan elections to Superior and District courts.

At this same point in the 2011-12 biennial session, Perdue, a Democrat, had vetoed five bills. During those two years she issued 19 vetoes in all, and 11 were overridden. She also vetoed one bill in the 2009-10 biennium.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory issued six vetoes during his 2013-16 term. Four of them were overridden. Democratic Gov. Mike Easley vetoed nine bills from 2001-08, but suffered only one override.

Cooper’s next veto could be the budget bill.

“To me the big question is which budget is going to get to him, the Senate or the House,” Little said. “In reality that’s where the battle is right now, because he’s going to veto it. As united as the Republicans have already shown themselves to be, they are going to override that veto.”

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said Cooper could encounter fallout from the veto battles.

“With all of these overrides it might plausibly suggest that he’s weak,” and can’t push his agenda forward, Taylor said.

But he agreed with Little and Mills: Vetoes please the base, which sometimes is much more interested in symbolic politics than actual policy change.

Taylor said it is impressive that House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, has been able to keep Republicans in line to sustain vetoes. Their 74-46 advantage has a razor-thin margin of two votes over the three-fifths supermajority needed. Senate Republicans hold a 35-15 edge, giving them five votes over the veto-proof minimum.

But most of the vetoes involved separation-of-power bills that are inside political baseball, and are unlikely to grab voters’ attention, Taylor said.

It would be harder to sustain a veto on legislation that affects voters’ everyday lives because they and special interest groups would be more involved, Taylor said. Likewise, issues could arise that divide rural, suburban, and urban lawmakers, and enough of them could be peeled off to sustain a veto.

The hog farm nuisance bill was one that had broader general electorate interest, Taylor said. Cooper’s environmentally animated supporters view hog farms as environmental disasters. Taylor reminded that the fight to ban the growth of hog farms and the push for regulations on their manure-storing lagoons a decade ago was akin to the furor over coal ash ponds today.

Mills said Cooper had no option to vetoing the nuisance bill because he would have alienated a large swath of his base if he hadn’t.

“There was a conservative argument to be made for property rights,” Mills said. “They believed there was a chance in sustaining that veto.”

Despite Cooper’s winless streak, Little doesn’t believe Democrats are alarmed. They also witnessed McCrory’s difficulty sustaining vetoes with his own party.

And Cooper benefits from a low bar being set due to the Republicans’ supermajorities, his month-long fight to retain his electoral win against GOP challenges, animosity between the branches of government, and bills the Republicans passed to strip away some of the governor’s powers, Little said.

Voters could perceive his mere surviving against that backdrop as a victory of sorts.

Cooper has little incentive to work with Republicans, but does have political reasons to continue issuing vetoes, Little said. If he makes much of an effort to compromise his base might become disenchanted, and grumble that they are no better off than they were with McCrory.

National politics could boost Democrats’ efforts to pick up General Assembly seats in the 2018 elections, especially if President Trump’s job approval ratings continue to hover in the 30s, Little said.

But if Democrats don’t win enough seats to break up the Republican supermajority in at least one chamber in 2018, it’s probable Cooper would adopt a less confrontational posture, Little said.