RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Democrats will have more influence when state government policies are hammered out compared to the past six years once more of the party’s legislators take their seats in January.
Republican lawmakers — weakened but still in charge of the General Assembly after Tuesday’s elections — will face negotiations with Democrats like Gov. Roy Cooper, whose vetoes will carry much greater heft and could scuttle GOP plans.
Democrats picked up at least 11 additional legislative seats and led in four others that could be subject to recounts.
Regardless, Democrats will have at least 53 of the 120 seats in the House, well above the 49 required to end the GOP’s veto-proof majority in the chamber. Democrats will have at least 18 of the Senate’s 50 seats, and would end the GOP supermajority there, too, if they hold on and win all three very close races.
“This election was a reset for the General Assembly, putting a much-needed check on the power of the supermajority,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County said in a release.
On top of the defeats of two constitutional amendments to erode gubernatorial powers over judicial vacancies and the election board and another victory on the state Supreme Court, Democrats made headway toward regaining the legislature they lost in 2010 and becoming level with Republicans in state government.
“I think people want us to be a centrist state where parties work together,” Rep. Graig Meyer of Orange County, who helped recruit Democratic candidates, said in an interview. Meyer added the legislative victories, along with the rejection of constitutional referendums, show voters are tired of “bullying” tactics by Republican legislators.
While the executive and legislative branches have worked together this fall on Hurricane Florence relief, Republican legislative leaders aren’t conceding the ground they’ve taken since 2013, when both chambers began holding veto-proof majorities simultaneously. Since Cooper took office, 20 of his 25 vetoes have been overridden.
In a release, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger pointed out the party would still “return a strong majority” to both chambers. Berger said the outcome shows voters support the GOP agenda, particularly on lower taxes and controlled spending.
“There’s no question the Democrats would like to spend more money,” Berger said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. “We’ll see what capacity we have for additional spending, and how we should prioritize those dollars.”
Meyer said he’s hopeful the Democrats’ increased strength will mean passage of a law expanding Medicaid to cover hundreds of thousands of uninsured people through the 2010 federal health care overhaul. Legislative Republicans have repeatedly refused to consider expansion. Cooper also has sought to block further corporate income tax cuts and phase out taxpayer-funded scholarships to K-12 students to attend private schools — items Republicans are unlikely to give up.
While heavily involved in candidate fundraising for Democrats to “Break the Majority,” the governor offered a low-key response Wednesday to the election results.
“North Carolinians sent a strong message to the legislature that they want their state leaders to find more common ground and work better with the governor,” Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in a release, citing health care, education, the environment and Florence recovery.
The dynamics could resemble what occurred in 2011 and 2012, when Democrat Beverly Perdue was governor and House Republicans were four seats short of a veto-proof majority. Then-Speaker Thom Tillis had to persuade rural Democrats to join Republicans to override Perdue’s vetoes. But the number of such conservative Democrats has dwindled since then.
“As the majority I think we have a certain responsibility to make sure that budgets get adopted, that policies move forward,” said Berger, who is seeking a fifth two-year term as Senate leader. “That doesn’t forestall, it seems to me, the possibility of us working with the governor and trying to reach some accommodation.”
The stakes for the next two-year session will be huge. Whatever happens will serve as a backdrop for Cooper’s 2020 re-election bid, and the parties that win the House and Senate that year will be in charge of the redistricting of legislative boundaries for the next decade.
The current two-year session of the General Assembly isn’t over.
Republican lawmakers planned months ago to return Nov. 27 to implement laws associated with the constitutional amendments that were approved. With two questions defeated, the focus likely will be on passing a law carrying out the voter identification mandate approved Tuesday. Democrats are worried Republicans will unveil other legislation they wish to push through before the GOP’s veto-proof control ends.