With a tattered copy of the U.S. Constitution in her left hand and an opaque marble in her right, North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers stood back to survey her options for president of the United States.
“Who do I like right now?” She answered her own rhetorical question by casting her vote for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Chatham County GOP Convention’s straw poll earlier this month. “He sounds the most mature.”
In the days since, Ellmers has thrown her weight behind another candidate, telling the Raleigh News & Observer that she voted for Donald Trump in the state’s March 15 presidential primary.
On Monday she met with Trump in D.C., then told reporters she knows what it's like not to be backed by Washington.
Her about-face says a lot about her situation, which is now the opposite of Trump's: Elected as an outsider in 2010 with tea party support, Ellmers is accused of having grown too cozy with the Washington establishment at the expense of her conservative, grassroots base.
Her shift toward the center earned her four primary challengers in 2016, all of whom were drawn out of the district in court-mandated redistricting in February. A federal three-judge panel is expected to weigh in on the new map any day, with the new primary set for June 7. And until then, Ellmers is effectively running in two versions of the 2nd District.
Ellmers rose quickly through the ranks in leadership as an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act, chairing the Small Business Subcommittee on Healthcare and Technology as a freshman and working on the Republican Study Committee's replacement bill in 2013. That same year, she helped relaunch the Republican Women's Policy Committee to show the party isn't just for "graying, older white men."
Who's who in the Ellmers primary
First, Rep. George Holding, whose 13th District was moved across the state, decided to run in the new 2nd District. “I just looked at the map. I didn’t think it was particularly aggressive. I thought it was pretty common sense,” Holding said, sitting in his barren Raleigh campaign office, noting that he wasn’t facing a real race in his old district. On Monday, Ellmers picked up another challenge from Greg Brannon, who won 25 percent of the vote in last week’s Senate GOP primary.
Holding argues he represented about 60 percent of the new district; Ellmers represented about 20 percent. Ellmers insists that campaigning in the new district is a matter of reintroducing herself to voters whom she represented under previous lines when first elected to Congress.
Holding also has a financial advantage. He’s the 99th wealthiest member of Congress and will likely have a family-funded super PAC for support.
Neither Ellmers, a nurse, nor Holding, a former U.S. attorney and aide to the late Sen. Jesse Helms, ever served in the General Assembly. That may have contributed to legislators drawing the new lines the way they did, said Carter Wrenn, a longtime consultant to Helms.
Wrenn’s got a unique perspective on this fight. He’s working for Holding — he met “George’s daddy” in the 1970s, he said between puffs on his cigar in his spacious Raleigh office — but he also worked on Ellmers’ first victory in 2010.
“I’d like to say it was because of a brilliant campaign,” he said of her defeat of Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge. The combination of high GOP turnout and Etheridge's tussle with a tracker caught on tape pushed Ellmers over the finish line first. Wrenn said: “It was just one of those gifts that fall from heaven in politics."
Some in the district now say that Ellmers has betrayed her base. "She has voted with Obama ever since she’s been there," said Michelle Eichelberg, the volunteer chair of the Chatham County GOP. In reality, Ellmers has supported the president 16 percent of her time in Congress, not far from the 15 percent average for House Republicans, according to CQ's Vote Watch. Eichelberg is backing Jim Duncan, Ellmers' Club for Growth-backed challenger who says he’s still running in the old 2nd District until the courts rule on the new map. So far, the Club for Growth has spent $488,000 against Ellmers.
Candidates are no longer required to reach a 40 percent threshold, so all that’s needed to win, in either version of the 2nd District, is a plurality.
'Then vote for someone else'
Speaking at the Chatham County GOP Convention — a gathering of about 50 Republicans in a middle school in the old 2nd District — Ellmers declined to stand on stage, instead walking back and forth between the rows of folding chairs.
“We have to protect our government, we have to make sure that our government is taken care of. In order to do that, you have to fund that,” she told the crowd. “Folks, this is a tool," she said of the Constitution she was still clutching. "Not something you hide behind, not something that keeps you from voting yes.”
“If you want someone who’s going to vote no and hope yes, then vote for someone else,” she said, rebuking the House Freedom Caucus in what she knew was their home turf, with even local party volunteer staff wearing campaign stickers for Duncan.
“But I stand up every day,'' she plowed on, "and I take the arrows on both sides of the aisle. And I will continue to do that for you, whether you vote for me or not.” Ellmers is a persuasive speaker, but that wasn’t what local GOP activists, many of whom turned out to see Heidi Cruz , wanted to hear.
Chatting at the Wake County GOP Convention in Raleigh, minutes after both she and Holding addressed their would-be constituents, Ellmers spoke openly about how and why she'd angered her base.
The Export-Import Bank she'd voted to reauthorize, she said, supports 6,000 jobs in her district. And the bill banning abortions after 20 weeks that she helped pull from the floor would originally have required rape survivors to report the rape to the police in order to get an abortion more than 20 weeks into a pregnancy.
The bill has since been revised, and no longer requires rape victims to report. But “if you remember back to the 2012 election, this is the conversation that started the whole 'war on women' issue with 'legitimate rape,'” said Ellmers, who heads the Republican Women's Policy Committee.
Ellmers doesn’t bristle when asked about what she calls the "mistruths" that she had an extramarital affair with GOP Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy . “It hurts us obviously. And we certainly went through our frustrations with it, and I think we’re all in a better place now,” said Ellmers, whose husband was standing nearby.
What she hasn't gotten over, though, is the way outside groups have tried to tar her: “Apparently the villain is me because I’m an effective, common sense conservative that cares about my constituents,” she said. “And apparently when you care about your constituents that means that somehow you’re less than conservative.”
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