The last line of defence for abortion rights in the South – and Biden’s best ally

US President Joe Biden hugs Kamala Harris, the vice-president, as Roy Cooper, the governor of North Carolina, looks on during an event at the Chavis community centre on 26 March 2024 in Raleigh, North Carolina (Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden hugs Kamala Harris, the vice-president, as Roy Cooper, the governor of North Carolina, looks on during an event at the Chavis community centre on 26 March 2024 in Raleigh, North Carolina (Getty Images)

Every time the US vice president Kamala Harris visits North Carolina, the state’s governor Roy Cooper reminds her how many times she has visited the Tar Heel state.

“She’s been a dozen times since she's been vice president to North Carolina,” Mr Cooper told The Independent. The two have known each other for more than a decade since Ms Harris was attorney general for California and he served in the same job for North Carolina.

Ms Harris has traversed the state, travelling to Raleigh, but also to NC A&T, one of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities, to talk about voting rights. While many worry about Ms Harris given polls her low approval rating, Mr Cooper said she is a major asset as she and President Joe Biden seek to flip North Carolina.

“She can obviously relate to women and what they are going through,” he said. “And plus she has been on the front lines of protecting women’s healthcare, both as attorney general, as a United States senator and now as vice president.”

Mr Cooper, who will leave office at the end of this year, is becoming an increasingly rare figure: he’s a white male Democrat from the South in a state that Donald Trump won. Nonetheless, he hopes to help Mr Biden and Ms Harris flip a state that has remained just outside of Democrats’ grasp.

“There’s no question that the road to the White House will go through North Carolina,” he said, pointing to the fact that the state provided his closest win and he won it by a smaller margin than he did in 2016. Mr Cooper would know: both times he ran for governor in 2016 and 2020, Mr Trump was at the top of the ballot.

Mr Cooper has largely won in the state on a platform of competence. He received high marks for helping North Carolina through natural disasters, even cooperating with Mr Trump, and handling the Covid-19 pandemic. Last year, he also worked with Republicans to expand Medicaid under Obamacare after Republicans had resisted doing so for a decade.

And voters in North Carolina continue to like him even in his last act. A Quinnipiac University poll showed he has a 51 per cent approval rating and only 39 per cent of North Carolinians disapprove of him. By contrast, 38 per cent of North Carolinians surveyed approve of Mr Biden and he trains Mr Trump 46 to 48.

Despite this, North Carolina has proven elusive for Democrats. The last time, they won the state, Joe Biden was on the ticket as vice president with Barack Obama in 2008. Since then, Republicans have taken over both houses of the state legislature and the state has two Republican senators.

Republicans have also been able to redraw the congressional districts in the state in a way that favours them and disadvantages Democrats, while Republicans retook the majority on the state’s supreme court in 2022, which gave them further control of the state. As a reward for his hard work, the state’s party chairman Michael Whatley became the head of the Republican National Committee, alongside Mr Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who hails from Wilmington.

Mr Cooper sees an opening for Democrats in the state given the rapidly growing population because of the influx of people moving into the state from places like New York, including into urban areas.

“The demographics are getting better here,” he said. And he is not shy about what will be at the front of voters’ minds: abortion rights.

“And Donald Trump put three justices on the Supreme Court that has caused women to face an abortion ban in North Carolina with the promise of coming back for more,” he said.

And Cooper has been the last line of defence for abortion rights in the South. Neighbouring states such as South Carolina, Georgia and Florida have put in place bans of six weeks. Up just above North Carolina, Republican governor Glenn Youngkin tried to campaign on passing a 15-week abortion ban last year, but it backfired, giving Democrats control of the state legislature.

Similarly, in North Carolina, when one Democrat switched parties to join the Republicans in the state legislature, they passed a 12-week abortion ban. Mr Cooper vetoed the legislation but the addition meant that Republicans could override the veto.

“There's an effective ban in the entire southeast, now that we have the Florida situation, and obviously North Carolina has a 12-week ban, but it's very burdensome on women because of the requirement of an in-person appointment before you can get the healthcare that you need,” he said.

Mr Cooper said he also fears that Republicans could pass an even stricter abortion ban if Republican lieutenant governor Mark Robinson, an ardent opponent of abortion, defeats Democratic attorney general Josh Stein.

Both men are running to succeed Mr Cooper, a staple of North Carolina politics for years who has never lost a race. Mr Stein has the support of Mr Cooper as well as the White House, while Mr Robinson has received the support of Mr Trump.

In addition to the harm that women face, the governor said he worried about the consequences healthcare workers face.

“Doctors don’t want to leave women suffering till they almost die before they can take action,” he said. “And many doctors are conflicted about how to proceed when you have a law that’s poorly written and difficult to interpret, when they may end up with significant liability, and in some states, even criminal matters taken against them.”

Mr Cooper said that some healthcare providers have left states with abortion bans and moved to states without them.

“Healthcare is strained in the rural south,” he said. “This is going to make it even worse.”

In addition, Mr Cooper warned that passing strict abortion bans might make North Carolina less attractive to people who otherwise might want to move there. In many ways, it’s similar to when North Carolina’s Republican legislature and previous governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, passed a bill restricting transgender people from using the restroom that aligned with how they identify.

That gave way to multiple businesses, music artists and the NCAA to pull out of North Carolina, a huge blow in the basketball-loving state and which led to Mr Cooper winning the governorship despite the fact Mr Trump beat Hillary Clinton the same year.

“Until the Republicans broke a supermajority we’ve been successful in keeping them out of the cultural wars,” he said. “But now this past year, they passed several pieces of legislation including this abortion that gets North Carolina back into the cultural war and I am concerned what signal that it sends to businesses.”

Mr Cooper said that it was important to elect Mr Stein to succeed him and to break the supermajority in the legislature.

“When you have a balanced government like this, in order to get things done, you need to build coalitions, and that’s something that I’ve been able to do over the last few years,” he said.

In that sense, he said that he and Mr Biden share plenty of parallels.

“I think North Carolinians, like government officials who can get things done, who believe in working for bipartisan solutions,” he said. “Joe Biden and I have proven we can do that. And that’s why I believe they will vote for him.”