Gov. Cooper: 2022 midterms are 'life-changing' elections
When Gov. Roy Cooper took office in 2017, Republicans dominated the North Carolina General Assembly. They successfully overturned 23 of Cooper's 28 vetoes over his first two years in office.
But Democrats made gains in the 2018 midterms and suddenly Cooper had enough legislative allies to sustain 47 of his vetoes since then.
The GOP must pick up two state senate seats this fall and three in the House to muster the three-fifths majority of those present needed to overturn vetoes.
Cooper spoke with WUNC's Rusty Jacobs earlier this week about the importance of balanced government and this year’s midterm elections. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
I'd like to start off by asking you: What is at stake in these midterm elections, particularly with respect to state legislative races?
"This election on Nov. 8 is a life-changing election. In my lifetime, there has never been a bigger difference between Republicans and Democrats, as we are seeing right now, particularly post-Donald Trump. The Republican Party in North Carolina and in this country, it's virtually unrecognizable.
"And as we go to the polls this November, women's reproductive freedom is on the ballot. Voting rights are on the ballot. Democracy itself is on the ballot. And as we approach these midterms — I know most people vote in presidential years, and don't think about the midterms that much — it is more important than ever that people get out and vote."
Voting rights, reproductive rights, the issues you just brought up, in many ways, are national issues. But how do you motivate voters when it comes to state legislative races by citing those issues?
If we lose the number of Democrats that we need to sustain my veto this November, (Republicans) will have open season on women's reproductive health.Gov. Roy Cooper
"Well, let's zoom back a minute, because I think it's important to talk about balance. Most North Carolina voters will tell you that they like it when there is a balance in state government. I have a number of unaffiliated and Republican friends, for that matter, who like the fact that we have a Democratic governor, a Republican majority legislature and a governor that can veto extreme bad legislation. I've talked to them, these unaffiliated and Republican voters and told them: if you’d like to keep the balance in North Carolina, you need to vote for your Democratic legislator this time.
"The Republicans will keep the majority in the legislature; there's very little doubt about that, unless something drastic changes. But the fact of whether I will be able to have an effective veto hangs in the balance here. We will be talking about protecting women's reproductive freedom because we have seen Republicans move to the extreme on this issue. I've already vetoed bad Republican bills. They haven't introduced or tried to pass any during these last few months because they know that I will have a successful veto. If we lose the number of Democrats that we need to sustain my veto this November, they will have open season on women's reproductive health."
Planned Parenthood, it's been reported, is putting $50 million into battleground states, including North Carolina. And you've got state legislative Republicans who are trying to get a 20-week ban, a law that was deemed unconstitutional, reinstated by a federal judge after this SCOTUS decision. How do those issues and those developments point to exactly what you're saying?
"Well, that's just the beginning... We're talking about a Republican party now, that says abortion is illegal. They want to criminalize abortions, and that means doctors and potentially women themselves, and they want to say no exceptions for rape, for incest, for the mother's life being in danger.
"So, what we're talking about here is something that runs counter to what the vast majority of North Carolinians and Americans believe. You take the state of Kansas that has a 60-plus percent vote for protecting women's reproductive freedom in a very red state. North Carolina is more progressive than Kansas.
"This is a very difficult issue. It's a very personal issue. We can talk about the spectrum of what the law should be. But most North Carolinians believe that women should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and that we need to make sure that we protect that freedom. We don't need politicians in the exam room with a woman and her doctor. And that's what you're seeing in some of this legislation.
"In Indiana, we just had Eli Lilly’s CEO, whom I talked to the other day, come out and say that this restrictive abortion ban is not good for our employees and their families. It's going to hurt our economy in Indiana, and we're going to have to think twice about expanding anymore here. We're going to have to look to other states. You had a film company in Arkansas, when that abortion ban went into place, actually pulled up and came to Wilmington, North Carolina to finish the film, because we're a state that respects women's reproductive freedom."
You've pretty much captured the “purplish quality” of North Carolina vs. — say — a red deep red state like Kansas. If the political prognosticators I've spoken with are correct, you've got the largest bloc of registered voters in North Carolina who are now are unaffiliated. There is this ex-urban-suburban vote, the pivotal vote in the close races you're going to see in this state.
Is there a danger of overplaying the hand in terms of abortion and reproductive rights to a segment of the population — key voters in the suburban areas — that might not feel the same way? Just as the Republicans might overplay by trying to push for a 20-week ban? What do you do? What key segment will make a pivotal difference in North Carolina’s state legislative races? And how do you appeal to that segment?
"First, we know that in urban and suburban areas, unaffiliated and Republican women feel strongly about protecting women's reproductive freedom, and I think you will see that show up in these races. But that's not all Democrats are about. Clearly, we want to protect voting rights, and clearly we have Republican state legislatures across this country who are reconsidering how they present presidential electors to Washington when the president is elected.
"This legislature, these Republicans, have been known to be one of the most extreme groups in the country when it comes to changing election laws. And when you have Republicans who may decide that they would rather have an autocracy than a democracy, as long as they are the guys in charge, then that's a problem. And that is exactly what the majority of the Republican Party has told us: that we would rather have Donald Trump as president rather than respect what the people of this country voted for.
"And that is a problem, and one that unaffiliated and Republican voters who love our democracy and want this system to work, they need to be thinking about that, particularly in North Carolina when they're voting for their state legislators and their judges."
I should note that North Carolina has a very long early voting period. It's no-excuse absentee ballot and you can get a mail-in ballot if you want it without a specific reason. So are the dangers you talked about — that we're seeing in places like Arizona and Georgia in terms of voting rights — is that really something a Democratic governor can stave off or has to stave off here?
"I already have. I vetoed bad election laws in North Carolina and one of the reasons that they aren't moving forward yet on these kinds of drastic changes is because they know that I will successfully veto this legislation. You will see this Republican legislature do whatever it can to curb people's voting rights that they don't think are going to vote for them. And we have seen this historically. We saw the Court of Appeals rule that this legislature discriminated against African Americans with surgical precision. Those kinds of things you will see, but I think you will see them 'doubly' if they have a super majority. And with this U.S. Supreme Court that Donald Trump now controls, I don't think you're going to see the backstop, from federal protections, that we've seen before. And that's why these elections in North Carolina, to try to keep the number of Democrats that will sustain my veto, is so critical right now."
You aren't on the ballot this year, but clearly you play a role. Can you talk about what you see as your role in these midterm elections?
You're going see me out there on the trail. I'm going to be campaigning for candidates and doing what I can to preserve this number of Democrats we need in the state legislature.Gov. Roy Cooper
"My mission for North Carolina is to have a state where North Carolinians are better educated, where they're healthier, where they have more money in their pockets, and they have opportunities to live lives of abundance. Every single day, I've worked toward that mission and that will be a part of this campaign.
"We've talked more about reproductive freedom and voting rights. But we will be talking about investing in our schools. Right now we've had to go to the Supreme Court to try to get this Republican legislature to do what it's supposed to do in protecting the right to a sound basic education that's guaranteed by our Constitution.
"We're going keep fighting for health care, this legislature still hasn’t expanded Medicaid. We are losing not only lives, which is the most important thing, but we're also losing $521 million a month, that could be coming into North Carolina to provide health insurance and help for rural hospitals, without expanding Medicaid.
"I've recruited candidates to run for the state legislature. Back when I first got elected and faced a super majority, I recruited candidates. I raised money. I helped them. And we broke that supermajority in 2018; it was like night and day. Not only did we stop all of the bad things, we also had a veto that helped us leverage good things like a clean energy bill for North Carolina that you would have thought would be unprecedented. And it was unprecedented.
"Those are the kinds of things that we can do with a veto. You're going see me out there on the trail. I'm going to be campaigning for candidates and doing what I can to preserve this number of Democrats we need in the state legislature."
Voting rights, abortion, reproductive rights, Medicaid expansion — these are issues that you're going to be pushing — but how important is it for you and the Dems and the candidates you support to talk about the economy? Because that is clearly an issue on people's minds.
Democrats are actually doing something about it. Republicans are pointing fingers and complaining about it.Gov. Roy Cooper
"We know that people are paying more at the gas pump and at the grocery store, and that families are working really hard to stretch their dollars further. Democrats are actually doing something about it. Republicans are pointing fingers and complaining about it.
"It's pretty natural when inflation occurs or bad things happen with the economy to blame the guy at the top, whether it is his or her fault or not. And clearly, historically, a president's party doesn't do as well in the midterms, and we do know we have inflation headwinds. Democrats are doing something about it with the Inflation Reduction Act that was just passed in Congress.
"We're going to be telling people about paying lower amounts for drugs. This new investment in clean energy that's going to reduce people's energy bills. That we actually are moving forward to make sure that the wealthiest among us and the corporations pay their fair share here. Republicans attack the inflation reduction act and say it's a tax increase. For the big corporations that haven't been pulling their weight, it is, but not for everyday Americans.
"So yes, we'll be talking about the economy... All the great paying jobs that we have brought into North Carolina — in a bipartisan way — better paying jobs for people in North Carolina. We've just been named the number one state in the country for business by CNBC. All of that is positive right now. We're going to be talking about those things as well."
And clearly you acknowledge that Republicans and Democrats can probably take some equal share of credit for a lot of those things...
But state legislative Republicans clearly are going to say, look, we've maintained a conservative fiscal policy, we built up a revenue surplus here in North Carolina, we're in pretty good shape, it is because of our restraint, not because of Democrats.
"Well, I wish they'd shown that restraint when they were passing bills like House Bill 2 that ran businesses out of North Carolina. We were able to get that repealed.
"We've been able to stave off those culture wars. We've been able to use the veto as a leverage to get more investment in our schools, community colleges, and universities. Businesses care more about workforce than anything else right now. Because they're trying to get strong, talented, diverse people to come to their companies and to work. North Carolina is helping to provide that.
"So, we're going to be talking about the economy and family budgets, and getting health care for people. But we're also talking about fundamental rights in a democracy that will help us get those families the kinds of things they need. And autocracy is not what we need in this country. And we are perilously close to it."
You mentioned some of the bipartisanship. When I look back since the pandemic — I remember you and Senator Berger and Speaker Moore talking about an agreement on legislation reopening schools amidst the pandemic. Vinfast, the arrival of the first car manufacturer in North Carolina. Apple. These are all real achievements. To what extent do those achievements play into Democrats' strategy this fall?
"People want us to work together. People want us to make government work. One of the most effective tools that I've had to do that is the threat of a veto. Having that leverage helps to bring Republicans to the table instead of being able to do whatever they want with a supermajority.
"And I would tell people — those of you want us to work together — there has to be a push and pull in government in order to make it work. Having an effective veto, having the number of Democrats that I need in the state legislature to make that veto. Something that works, something that can push us toward bipartisan agreement. The clean energy legislation that we passed was very reliant on the veto.
"So we want to keep working with Republicans to make our state better. But if we lose, and they get a supermajority, I think you're going to find them not coming to the table as much as they did before."
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that Republicans successfully overturned 25 of Cooper's 28 vetoes over his first two years in office. In fact, they overturned 23 vetoes. The story has been corrected.