Why a Republican supermajority might not matter

N.C. General Assembly building in downtown Raleigh.

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  • Political experts say that Republicans don't necessarily need a supermajority in both chambers to override Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes next year. A handful of moderate Democrats could be convinced to break ranks and side with the GOP.
  • Since Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2011, there have been a number of instances of Democrats siding with Republicans on veto overrides.
  • At the same time, today's political dynamics could mean that tendency will be less and less likely, with fewer moderate Democrats in the General Assembly and a stronger infusion of national politics into state and local politics.

Do Republicans need a supermajority in the North Carolina Legislature to enact their agenda in 2023? If history is any guide, maybe not.

Most of the attention on legislative-level races this year in the Tar Heel State has focused on the possibility of the GOP regaining a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly. Republicans need 72 seats in the House and 30 in the Senate to accomplish that feat — translating to a net pickup of three seats in the House and two in the Senate.

A supermajority is important because it means Republicans would have the firepower to overturn Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. Since he took office in 2017, Cooper, a Democrat, has freely wielded his veto pen — to the tune of 75 times, far and away the most of any governor in North Carolina history.

Political experts estimate that a Senate supermajority is more within reach for Republicans than one in the House. The key question is this: in a scenario where the GOP is one or two votes shy of a supermajority in that chamber, would it still be able to mount a successful veto override on certain issues?

“As margins get smaller, that increases the likelihood that a veto could be overridden with one or two Democrats crossing over and voting with Republicans,” said Dr. David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh.

“I think you’ll see many moderate Democrats, especially those who had to pay their own way, stake out more independence on bread and butter issues for their districts,” added Brian Lewis, a lobbyist with New Frame.

Is past prologue?

Peeling off a few Democrat members of the House for a veto override is not without precedent, even on controversial issues. 

After Republicans took control of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction in 2011, Democrat Gov. Bev Perdue stood in their way with her veto pen. But Republicans were successful at convincing a handful of Democrats in the House to join them on several key bills. 

For example, House Democrats William Brisson, James Crawford, Dewey Hill, and Timothy Spear broke ranks with their party and voted in favor of the Woman’s Right to Know Act. The bill established a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and required physicians to inform women of abortion alternatives and offer them a chance to view an ultrasound image of their unborn child.

On a bill overhauling the state’s regulatory environment, the Republican caucus convinced 10 Democrats to jump ship and join a veto override. With the aid of the Democrat breakaways, Republicans also succeeded at overturning vetoes on medical liability reform, Medicaid requirements, and jobs reform legislation.

Why history could repeat

Could a similar scenario unfold in the 2023 long session? As Lewis points out, the few moderate Democrats remaining in the House would have the power to broker deals with Republicans, particularly on big ticket items like the budget.

“It’s obvious that Gov. Cooper has focused much of his time, energy, and money in Senate races, which leaves many moderate House Democrats free to vote their conscience and their districts in the 2023 session,” Lewis said.

McLennan noted that Republican lawmakers could also peel off support on policy issues that are salient to a particular Democrat’s district.

“A supermajority in both the House and Senate are not necessary to reduce the effectiveness of Gov. Cooper’s veto,” McLennan said.

The bottom line is that Cooper will be a lame duck next year — finishing out his second term in office — without the same degree of political heft he’s enjoyed in years past. That could change the equation for some Democrats.

Not so fast

But political experts caution that history might not repeat itself. One big difference between today’s political environment and a decade or two ago is how much more polarized the parties have become on key issues. The days of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats are mostly over. Their caucus in the U.S. House had 59 members in 2008, compared to just 19 today.

Simply put, progressives dominate today’s Democrat Party. There could be few moderates left to convince.

“In this age of nationalized political parties into state, and even local, politics, party loyalty may be something that is harder and harder to break in terms of elected officials going against their party wishes,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury.

Even for those moderates who might be persuaded, another roadblock is the possibility of drawing a Democrat primary challenge from the Left. 

That scenario unfolded this year in N.C. Senate District 19, when incumbent Sen. Kirk deViere fell to primary challenger Val Applewhite. Cooper made the rare move of endorsing Applewhite in March because deViere sided with Republicans on key legislation, including the state budget and a bill to reopen schools to in-classroom instruction.

“I have no doubt Gov. Cooper will remind Democratic legislators at the beginning of session of his work to take out Sen. deViere in his primary,” said Lewis. “However, it’s not a given that Val Applewhite, Gov. Cooper’s endorsed candidate in that primary, will prevail. And if she does win, it’s being reported that it will cost upwards of $2 million for her to beat Wesley Meredith. That’s money that could have been spent in other swing races and that’s what many Democrats are talking about these days.”

Moderate N.C. Sen Don Davis, of Greene and Pitt counties, also drew backlash from his party in 2019 when he was the only Democrat to side with Republicans in overturning Cooper’s veto of a pro-life bill, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. That vote and Davis’ past of supporting pro-life legislation was a key point of contention in the Democratic primary in the first congressional district this year.

“It may be a harder proposition nowadays to have a Democrat buck their own party and governor,” Bitzer said. “It would also greatly depend on the policy issue at play in the battle between the Republican legislature and Democratic governor, and there are fewer issue areas that cross-cut across parties as well.”