Voices: North Carolina is about to restrict abortion: Here’s how the GOP took over the state

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state senate passed legislation to ban abortion at 12 weeks on Thursday. The legislation, which follows the passing of a similar law in Florida, means that abortion access will be effectively cut off throughout most of the South.

What is particularly surprising about the legislation is it would happen in a state like North Carolina. While the state was part of the Confederacy, it always viewed itself as not as regressive as other Southern states.

When states like Alabama and Arkansas elected Dixiecrat governors in the 1960s, North Carolina’s Terry Sanford championed civil rights and integration.

With a city like Charlotte that attracts finance and the Research Triangle that includes universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University, it has always positioned itself as what political scientist V.O. Key called a “progressive plutocracy.”

Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has threatened to veto the abortion bill, but Republicans have enough votes to override it. Mr Cooper won his first gubernatorial campaign in 2016 when Donald Trump won the state largely on the back of the Republican governor passing a bill that restricted transgender people from using public restrooms that matched their gender. Some likely hoped that after Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976 that its political trajectory would mirror that of Virginia, which also voted for Mr Obama in 2008.

Instead, Mr Cooper’s victories in 2016 and 2020 notwithstanding, North Carolina has only moved further to the right in the 15 years since Mr Obama’s victory. While Virginia has become more Democratic and Georgia voted for Joe Biden (though it remains staunchly Republican on the state level), Democrats have been unable to turn their fortunes around in the state.

The bad luck began shortly after Mr Obama’s victory. Unlike many Southern states, North Carolina’s legislature remained firmly Democratic for the better part of a century and it had only elected two Republican governors in the 20th century, both of whom were decidedly moderate. But the Great Recession left many in the state reeling, as did the decline of the textile, tobacco and furniture industries.

In response, North Carolina voted overwhelmingly for the GOP, giving Republicans both houses of the legislature for the first time since 1898 in 2010. Former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory won the governorship in 2012, giving the GOP a trifecta for the first time in more than a century, the same year Mitt Romney won North Carolina. In 2014, the state’s house speaker Thom Tillis routed Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, solidifying the GOP’s hold.

The hits continued to come in 2016 when Mr Trump won the state and flipped historically Democratic areas like Robeson County and repeated his performance in 2020. In 2022, the state Democratic party fell even further and the GOP gained seats in the state legislature, coming up only one seat short of a supermajority in the state house.

Then, last month, the other shoe dropped when Tricia Cotham, a Democratic state legislator who had campaigned heavily on supporting abortion rights, switched parties and she joined the GOP, giving the party its super majority.

All of this might have some Democrats wondering how a state that sees itself as separate from the rest of the South could shift so hard to the right. Ultimately, the answer comes down to demographics. While 26 per cent of residents in neighboring Virginia live in rural areas, only about 57 per cent of North Carolinians live in urban areas.

As urban areas become increasingly Democratic, the party has become more reliant on the areas and less focused on rural areas nationally. Similarly, roughly 57 per cent of Georgia’s population lives in Atlanta, which has contributed to the state becoming fertile ground for Democrats and contributed to Senator Raphael Warnock’s victory last year.

Similarly, North Carolina also lacks the large college-educated numbers that turned Virginia into a solidly Democratic state. Whereas 59.3 per cent of residents of the Old Dominion have either a college degree or some post-secondary certificate, only 34.9 per cent of North Carolinians have a college degree. As educational polarisation continues, with non-college graduates no longer seeing the Democratic Party as the party of the working class, they will continue to face huge obstacles.

Lastly, North Carolina lacks a sizeable African-American population. While about 30.5 per cent of Georgia’s population is Black, only about 22.3 per cent of North Carolina is Black. The lack of a large enough Black population combined with a lack of a college-educated population makes the state a heavy lift for Democrats.

Incidentally, the more that the state passes laws like abortion restrictions, the less attractive it will be to college-educated voters who might otherwise migrate to North Carolina. It will also disincentivise college students at places like Duke, UNC and Wake Forest University from staying in North Carolina, which could contribute to the state becoming even more Republican.

Conversely, the law could also create enough of a backlash that voters punish Republicans. The NCAA’s decision to pull out of North Carolina because of the bathroom bill made the state look like a pariah and gave Mr Cooper the governorship. An old adage described North Carolina as a “vale of humility between two mountains of conceit,” and tarnishing that image might cost dearly.