Rep. Tricia Cotham’s announcement in April that she would change parties from Democrat to Republican shook up North Carolina’s politics. Republicans lauded her shift, which cemented their party’s control of the General Assembly, while Democrats decried what they viewed as deceit in violation of voters’ trust.
Now, seven months later, Cotham has announced that she will seek reelection as a Republican in a new GOP-leaning Charlotte-area district. Her reelection bid evokes questions about what the Republican and Democratic strategies will be to harness votes in this competitive district, which is not a guaranteed win for either party.
New district for Cotham
Cotham was elected as a Democrat in 2022 in a district on the outskirts of Charlotte that encompasses Mint Hill, Grove Park and other communities. House District 112 is a Democratic-leaning district, and any Republican candidate running there would have struggled to get elected.
But Cotham won’t be seeking reelection there.
Instead, she’ll run in House District 105, she announced on Saturday on X, formerly Twitter. Republicans drew the district in October during redistricting.
The newly drawn district keeps Mint Hill but stretches farther into southeastern Mecklenburg County, which leans more Republican. In the most recent U.S. Senate election, voters in HD-105 picked the Republican nominee, Ted Budd, by a margin of only 1.38%.
Whether Cotham can win there may come down to the strategies and importance Republicans and Democrats place on her race.
According to Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, it’s likely both parties will prioritize this district and “throw money at the problem.”
On the “Democratic side, this is a winnable district and certainly they are going to try to use Cotham’s” party switch “to drive support of their party,” he said. Their chances will come down to picking the right candidate and running a strong campaign, he said.
Can Cotham get through the primary?
The Republican Party and Cotham, on the other hand, will “be crossing their fingers” that Cotham does not get a challenge from a further-right candidate in the primary, Cooper said.
On Dec. 4, candidates can begin to file to run in the 2024 elections. The primary election is on March 5. The general election is Nov. 5.
While serving in the House from 2007 to 2016, Cotham was a staunch supporter of abortion rights and other Democratic priorities. After her return this year and her switch, which granted Republicans a pivotal veto-proof majority in the House (with the Senate already having a supermajority), she cast a vote on May 3 to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and enact a new 12-week limit on most abortions. During the rest of this year’s session, she voted in line with the GOP and helped override over a dozen major bills.
Cotham is also the primary sponsor for various bills backing Republican priorities, including a school-choice measure they passed into law that allows the state to offer taxpayer-funded, universal scholarships, or vouchers, to attend private schools. For Republicans, this gives families more control over their children’s educational options, while Democrats criticize the bill, saying it moves money away from struggling public schools to private ones.
Despite voting in line with the party, her record places her on the more moderate side of the conservative party, according to Cooper.
“So it’s not a guarantee that she’ll win that primary,” he said. “I would imagine she will have the money. I would imagine she’ll have the support, but somebody could change that — the right candidate who runs to the right of Cotham.”
Still, any candidate who runs against Cotham would be running “afoul of the establishment money wing of the Republican Party,” and it would take a “special kind of candidate to want to do that,” Cooper said.
If she gets through the primary, Republicans will likely “lean in” to positives in Cotham’s track record and run a more moderate campaign to match the district, he said.
Anderson Clayton, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, has made Cotham a major focus of the party’s publicity since her defection in April.
At the time Cotham’s party switch was announced, Clayton called it “a deceit of the highest order.” Shortly after, Democrats began sending emails campaigning on Cotham’s switch.
On Monday, Clayton told The News & Observer that: “Tricia Cotham has raised us more money as a Republican than she ever did as a Democrat.”
Clayton isn’t ready to name a Democratic challenger to Cotham, but she said she’s confident the party has a good chance of flipping the seat.
“We know if we run a good ground game and a good campaign, the candidate that we have up for the Democratic nomination is going to be someone who has a really competitive shot at winning this district,” Clayton said. “We’re going to make sure that voters know that Tricia Cotham is someone who’s lied to them in the past – and what’s to say that she won’t do that again?”
In announcing her switch in April, Cotham said during a Republican press conference that the Democratic Party she had known to have a “big tent” had changed and wanted lawmakers to do what they were told. She said there were attempts to control her as well as attacks against her on social media.
Several GOP leaders and high-ranking lawmakers attended April’s press conference to welcome Cotham to the party. House Speaker Tim Moore, who has worked with Cotham in the House since she was first appointed to fill a vacant seat in 2007, said he was “very proud” to join his “newest Republican colleague,” as previously reported by The N&O. He said that in conversations with Cotham over a few weeks he had gotten a sense she was unhappy and felt that she had to vote against her conscience more than once.
Despite what she may have said, for Drew Kromer, chair of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, “no matter what side you’re on, you can see that she’s someone that doesn’t keep their word or their promises to their constituents. So, despite Republicans drawing the district in her favor, at the end of the day, voters want to elect somebody that they can trust. And she has shown that she can’t be trusted,” he said.
“We’ve already begun fundraising off of Cotham’s announcement. And we anticipate that this will be one of the most expensive state House races in the state this year,” he said.
Kromer said despite the Republican lean he feels confident in Democrats’ chances. He pointed to the recent elections in Huntersville, in Republican-leaning northern Mecklenburg County, where voters picked a new mayor and six new town commissioners, all endorsed by Democrats.
According to Kromer, the party was heavily involved in these elections, with hundreds of Democratic volunteers knocking on doors and making calls. The party also sent out thousands of mailers and “our people turned out at a much much higher rate than the Republicans.”
In House District 105, “we’re gonna do the same thing,” but on an even bigger scale, he said.
Cotham’s party switch may have seemed deceitful to some Democrat, but for many Republicans, her decision was worthy of praise.
State GOP Chairman Michael Whatley said in April that the party was thrilled to have Cotham join Republicans to “advance solutions for North Carolina families.”
“This announcement continues to reflect that the Democratic Party is too radical for North Carolina,” Whatley said, as previously reported by The N&O. “The values of the Republican Party align with voters, and the people of Mecklenburg County should be proud to have her representation in Raleigh.”
Republican leaders likely needed “to make some deals” with Cotham for her to switch, Cooper said. So backing Cotham, instead of another candidate in this district, is “certainly not a quid pro quo, but I think it is just good politics,” he said.
Stephen Wiley, the caucus director for House Republicans, told The N&O on Monday, that “Cotham is a strong candidate, (with a) strong background” but without knowing who the Democratic candidate will be, the GOP’s strategy is still “pretty generic right now.”
Not knowing who will be on the top of the ticket for Democrats or Republicans – though signs point to it being a standoff between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — also limits strategies, he said.
North Carolinians have preferred Republican candidates in 11 of the last 13 presidential presidential elections, including in the 2020 race between Biden and Trump. Candidates often tailor their messaging around the national talking points.
And while Wiley said the party “probably won’t do any kind of really in-depth research” until there’s more clarity, the district is a Republican priority.