Hunger Games in North Carolina

Two GOP incumbents vie for the same seat

Holding, who currently represents the 13th District, is running in North Carolina's new 2nd District. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 5:00 p.m. |  The first Republican member of Congress to lose a seat this year will almost surely hail from North Carolina.  

The state holds its congressional primaries next month, and in a rare political twist of fate, two incumbents are facing off in the 2nd Congressional District.   

It wasn't supposed to be this way.  

But a long-litigated redistricting process scrambled North Carolina congressional districts shortly before the originally scheduled March 15 primaries.   

Every district's borders changed — some more than others. The 13th District, currently held by Rep. George Holding, was shifted across the state.  

Given the confusion that ensued, North Carolina decided to delay the primaries in its 13 congressional districts until June 7. Meanwhile, Holding decided to seek election in a district that more closely matched the one he originally represented.   

Unfortunately for 2nd District Rep. Renee Ellmers, that was her district.  

[Related: Ellmers Faces Tough Primary Fight] Ellmers and Holdings are now locked in a incumbent-versus-incumbent fight that, in less than a month, will result in one of them becoming the first Republican member of Congress to lose this year.   

(One incumbent Democrat, indicted Pennsylvania Rep. Chaka Fattah, lost his primary last month.)  

This is the primary fight of Ellmers' life .  

She was already facing primary opposition in the old 2nd District , but her opposition was drawn out of the new district.  

Her campaign estimates that she's being outspent two-to-one by Holding, who has significant personal wealth , and outside groups working on his behalf. Those groups have slammed Ellmers for losing touch with the conservatives who helped elect her in 2010.  

[Related: Roll Call's Wealth of Congress Index] The conservatives that have soured on Ellmers are angry at her support for the omnibus, for reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank and for helping pull from the floor an anti-abortion bill that would have required rape survivors to report their abuse to the authorities.   

Given the resources Holding has at his disposal, Holding should be doing better than he is, said Ellmers senior campaign adviser Patrick Sebastian.  

The entrance of a third Republican in the primary may be complicating the race.   

Greg Brannon , a local obstetrician and perennial tea party candidate , is a familiar name to North Carolina Republicans. Back in March, he won 25 percent of the vote in the GOP Senate primary against Sen. Richard Burr. Shortly after losing that race, he threw his hat in the ring in the 2nd District for the GOP nod.   

Brannon speaks at a rally for his 2014 Senate campaign at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Brannon speaks at a rally for his 2014 Senate campaign at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

[Related: Conservative Outside Groups Not Rushing to Help Burr Primary Challenger] Holding thinks Brannon is cutting into his conservative support. His campaign even sent out a fundraising email to that effect.  

"Suddenly, Renee and I were running neck and neck in a horse race," Holding wrote.   

Holding's first poll of the race gave him a 10-point lead over Ellmers.  

A second internal poll conducted in mid-April, after Brannon got in the race, put the two members in "a statistical dead heat," according to Carter Wrenn, Holding's political consultant. The poll was a live-caller survey of 400 likely GOP primary voters.  

Ellmers' campaign also sees a competitive race — but not because Brannon is cutting into Holding's conservative support.  

"I think that's Holding's excuse because it’s pretty tight right now," said Sebastian. Both campaigns are eager to suggest Brannon, widely regarded as the most conservative of the three, is cutting into their base of support. That debate — who loses the most to Brannon — gets to the heart of what this primary is about: who's the true conservative?  

Ellmers has attacked Holding for being beholden to Washington special interest groups and for prioritizing fundraising over legislating.  

[Related: Proposed N.C. Congressional Map Sets Up Incumbent Showdown] Ellmers has been in hot water with conservative groups for some time. On Wednesday, the Susan B. Anthony List endorsed Holding — the first time the group has endorsed a male anti-abortion candidate over a female anti-abortion candidate in a Republican primary.  

On Thursday, Americans for Prosperity debuted an ad attacking Ellmers. It's the group's first primary hit against a GOP member of Congress.  

The Club for Growth, which got behind one of Ellmers' opponents in her old 2nd District, has vowed to continue its opposition. The group's super PAC has spent nearly $500,000 against her.  

Ellmers, who campaigns with a pocket copy of the Constitution, calls herself a "common sense conservative." (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Ellmers, who campaigns with a pocket copy of the Constitution, calls herself a "common sense conservative." (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Ellmers has defended her controversial votes by explaining that the Export-Import Bank supports 6,000 jobs in her district. And her initial opposition to the abortion bill, she said, was rooted only in her opposition to the reporting requirement , which she feared, would re-open the "war on women." She's anti-abortion and opposes exceptions for rape or incest.  

[Related: Renee Ellmers Says She's Praying for Those Who 'Bear False Witness'] Not all of her constituents have been sold.  

"She has voted with Obama ever since she’s been there," Michelle Eichelberg, the volunteer chair of the Chatham County GOP, said in an interview  in March in North Carolina.  

But that's far from true.  

Ellmers has supported President Barack Obama 13 percent of the time since she and Holding have both been in Congress. Holding has supported the president 9 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch. Both have supported him less often than the average House Republican.  

Ellmers knows the bind she's in. Earlier this spring, she cast her ballot in a county GOP presidential straw poll for John Kasich , saying he was the "most mature."  

Several weeks later, she embraced Donald Trump .   

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