North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District race could be a bellwether for the next two years of Congress and the Republican Party.
The race pits freshman incumbent Renee Ellmers, a Republican who has become a frequent spokeswoman for the GOP leadership in Washington, against Steve Wilkins, a Democrat who embraces core liberal values.
The conservative-leaning district, much of which is new to Ellmers, starts a few miles south of High Point; a portion curves around southern Fayetteville, arcs to the northeast and then moves north to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. It includes all of Moore and Lee counties and parts of Randolph, Alamance, Chatham, Hoke, Cumberland, Harnett, and Wake.
Ellmers, 48, became the only North Carolina Republican to defeat an incumbent Democrat during the GOP wave election of 2010, winning by less than 1 percent of the 190,000 votes cast. She defeated seven-term incumbent Rep. Bob Etheridge, who was captured on video manhandling a young man on a Washington, D.C., sidewalk after Etheridge was asked if he supported President Obama’s agenda. The infamous “who are you?” video went viral on YouTube and drew independents and undecided voters to the Ellmers camp.
Ellmers’ victory remained a stunner, however, as Democrats led Republicans in voter registration 51 percent to 29 percent, and Etheridge had won his previous two general elections with at least 65 percent of the vote.
When the freshman representative went to Washington, she quickly became a favorite of the new leadership in the House and appeared often as an advocate for the GOP agenda on cable news programs and talk radio shows.
She also attracted criticism from some conservative activists as she vigorously defended the House Republican leaders’ decision to raise the debt ceiling. The conservative Club for Growth ranked Ellmers in the bottom third of freshemen Republican lawmakers “based upon their commitment to limited government and pro-growth policies.”
Ellmers said the criticism is unwarranted. The bill raising the federal debt ceiling “came with substantial cuts to spending, and it also gave us the ability to vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and force a vote in the Senate if [the amendment] passed in the House,” she said.
In addition, she cited a number of conservative economic proposals she favors that were passed by the Republican-led House — cutting regulations, raising energy production, simplifying the tax code and lowering tax rates — and have been stalled in the Democratically controlled Senate.
“They’re all the things that our job creators, our business owners who want to be hiring, have told us are the things that are holding us back,” Ellmers said.
The new 2nd District has a larger share of Republican voters than it did in 2010, but Ellmers hasn’t represented a lot of them.
Wilkins, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Grenada and both Iraq wars, wants a federal tax credit to encourage hiring by small businesses and more assistance for small farmers. He also called for more education and infrastructure spending.
Wilkins, 52, would like upgrades made to the nation’s transportation system, power grid, pipelines, and rural high-speed data network.
“Every time in our history that we’ve invested in our infrastructure, it’s helped,” Wilkins said. “It’s not the only thing, but it helps a lot toward economic growth in the future.”
Like many Republicans, Ellmers opposes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the controversial health care reform law often called Obamacare. The best way to address the law, “because it is such a labyrinth of bad, crucially devastating policy, is just to remove the whole, entire legislation,” Ellmers said.
Ellmers, a nurse, favors free-market health care reforms. One would allow insurers to sell policies across state lines.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in September that he favored popular Obamacare provisions enabling young adults to remain covered by parental health insurance and requiring insurers to accept customers with any medical condition. Before Romney’s comments aired, Ellmers lauded those provisions, but says they can be provided in ways that are not as prescriptive as the mandates in the president’s health care package
Wilkins supports the president’s health care reforms, although he expects some tweaks will be required as implementation proceeds.
“We need to move forward with it,” he said. “What’s distressing to me is those people who say, ‘Oh, it’s Obamacare, we need to get rid of it’ — you don’t hear any alternatives.”
Ellmers also has been criticized for opposing a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, because of concerns about its language. But she noted that she supports the federal law defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Some conservative commentators, dissatisfied with these explanations, have urged readers to back Cary resident Brian Irving rather than Ellmers.
In addition to the problems facing any third-party candidate in a winner-take-all election, Irving has to clear two hurdles. One is his reluctance to break the $5,000 fundraising threshold that triggers detailed campaign finance reporting.
Federal campaign records showed Ellmers had $270,000 cash on hand, having spent more than $800,000; Wilkins had about $6,000, with some $16,000 spent. Irving plans to run a few TV commercials shortly before the election.
Another hindrance could be the 63-year-old freelance writer’s opposition to spending federal money on local concerns. “If you want to vote for somebody who’s going to promise you stuff, then I’m not your person,” Irving said.
Irving wants to cut spending, eliminate taxes, and decrease regulation, all of which he feels would boost the economy. He’d also recall all overseas American troops and sharply reduce military budgets.
“If you believe that neither of the major parties have … earned your trust,” Irving said, “the best way to go is to vote for a third party, if for no other reason as a protest vote.”
Matthew E. Milliken is a contributor to Carolina Journal.