Dec. 14, 2015 — Time sometimes changes perspective in politics. Three-term North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-Dunn) came to Congress with a 2010 victory margin of just under 1,500 votes against then-Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-Lillington/Durham) in what became one of that cycle’s biggest Tea Party upsets. Now running for a fourth term, some of the congresswoman’s past allies are backing one of her Republican primary opponents. Her performance in office has disappointed various conservative segments.
This week, the Club for Growth, one of the most prolific conservative outside support groups endorsed Rep. Ellmers’ top primary opponent, former Chatham County Republican chairman Jim Duncan. The Ellmers’ conservative detractors have a major problem, however, in that the anti-incumbent vote is split among three candidates. In addition to Duncan, local radio talk show host Frank Roche and public relations executive Kay Daly are both in the race.
With the Club helping Duncan, his resource base will expand exponentially. He becomes Ellmers’ key challenger and, if the other two could be talked out of running before the upcoming Dec. 21 candidate filing deadline (for the March 15 primary), would be in strong position to deny her re-nomination. But, considering that North Carolina employs a 40 percent run-off rule, defeating any incumbent in a crowded field is a difficult proposition. To avoid a secondary election, Ellmers would only have to reach the 40 percent plateau to clinch the nomination, which, in the 2nd District is the tantamount to winning in November.
Facing a primary challenge is nothing new for the congresswoman. For her first re-election, she scored 56 percent of the vote against three Republican opponents. Considering that NC-2 was radically changed in 2011 redistricting, mainly to make what was a discernibly Democratic seat anchored in Durham into a Republican suburban seat that starts just southwest of Raleigh, then moves due south to circumvent the city of Fayetteville, and wraps around west all the way to the outer suburbs of High Point in the Piedmont Triad, her victory percentage was acceptable for a virtually unknown freshman incumbent.
Turning to the 2012 general election, Mitt Romney scored a touch over 57 percent here against President Obama. Rep. Ellmers won her subsequent November campaign with 56 percent against an under-funded Democratic nominee.
In 2014, we saw a similar scenario unfold. With only 36,457 individuals voting, Rep. Ellmers captured 58.7 percent, a low total against the aforementioned Roche, who spent less than $43,000 that year in attracting 41.3 percent of the vote. Clearly, this performance illustrates incumbent weakness.
Now facing a well-funded opponent, Ellmers has problems. Not trusted on economic issues such as the debt ceiling and re-funding the Export-Import Bank of the United States, she frustrated social issues conservatives by doing the leadership’s bidding on, what many saw as, a watered-down pro-life measure earlier this year. To make matters worse, rumors of an extramarital affair with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-23) repeatedly surfaced during the latter’s aborted campaign for Speaker when John Boehner resigned the position. Both she and McCarthy have denied having such a relationship.
It will be a major feat to keep Rep. Ellmers below 40 percent in a multi-candidate field to force a run-off election, but such a result is well within the realm of possibility particularly if the Duncan supporters can convince the others not to run. With the Club for Growth’s involvement for Duncan’s now evident, attention should be paid to this early primary contest and considered an upset possibility.
Soon after the McCarthy speakership debacle ended, rumors began surfacing in the state that Ellmers might not seek re-election. At this point, it appears she will file, but we’ll know for sure in 10 days. At the end of September, she held a rather low $411,242 in her campaign account.