Why did freshman U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers draw three Republican primary challengers? That question probably occurred to more than one politico after the filing deadline for North Carolina’s May 8 primary closed three weeks ago.
Ellmers’ victory over Bob Etheridge in the 2nd Congressional District was the big surprise of Tar Heel politics in 2010. During her first term in office, Ellmers has enjoyed exposure as a freshman on Capitol Hill, aided by House Speaker John Boehner. She also has earned her conservative spurs as demonstrated by recent rankings by the National Journal.
As an added benefit, the Republican-crafted redistricting plan was kind to her. Ellmers won — barely — in 2010 in a district that had 51 percent registered Democrats, 28 percent registered Republicans, and 21 percent unaffiliated. Under the new maps, voter registration is 38 percent Democrat, 36 percent Republican, and 26 percent unaffiliated.
In 2008, Obama won the 2nd district, 53 percent to 47 percent, over Republican John McCain. Under the new maps, McCain would have been the victor by a sizeable margin — 56 percent to 43 percent.
So, why did three fellow Republicans — Clement Munno, Sonya Holmes, and Richard Speer — file to challenge Ellmers? Political experts and operatives suggest that three factors contributed to the crowded primary: The redrawn district encompasses a new constituency, Ellmers is a freshman lawmaker on her first re-election outing, and widespread anti-incumbent sentiment is driving challengers.
Ask Ellmers’ foes for the reasons, and they’ll say it’s because Ellmers hasn’t fulfilled her campaign promises in office.
Under the new maps, Ellmers represents parts of four new counties: Alamance, Hoke, Moore, and Randolph. She no longer represents parts of Franklin, Johnston, Nash, Sampson, and Vance counties.
Only one of Ellmers’ primary challengers, Munno, is from a county (Moore) new to the district. Holmes is from Harnett County and Speer from Cumberland County.
“There may be a sense that because so much of the district is new to her, that it’s plausible that [the challengers] feel they have a shot,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “She is an incumbent but in a district with a large number of constituents who don’t know her. After all, she is hardly a fixture of the political scene, having been elected in 2010.”
Removing Johnston County was significant move because it made up 23 percent of the 2nd district under the old maps. The new district also includes a greater share of Cumberland County compared to the old version.
In telephone interviews, Holmes and Speer criticized Ellmers for voting to raise the federal debt ceiling last summer. (Attempts to reach Munno for comment were not successful.)
Holmes criticized Ellmers for failing to push for a national sales tax adequately after promising to do so during her campaign, while Speer said that Ellmers hasn’t been effective at opposing the Obama administration’s health care law.
“The fact of the matter is that just introducing bills on the Affordable Care Act isn’t going to work,” Speer said. The solution is to chip away at the law by keeping a limit on the debt ceiling, he said.
At the time of the debt-ceiling skirmish last year, Ellmers defended her decision as support for an imperfect deal that was still “a fiscally sound solution to put an end to this spending-driven debt crisis.” The final compromise in Congress raised the debt ceiling in conjunction with spending cuts.
All other Republicans in the North Carolina delegation, except Rep. Walter Jones of the 3rd district, voted to raise the debt ceiling. All Democrats except Rep. Heath Shuler of the 11th district voted against the deal.
Both Holmes and Speer voted for Ellmers in 2010. Speer said that his candidacy will be helped by a “throw-the-bums-out” mentality among voters this year.
“Renee has engendered a lot more negative feelings among her constituents than she thinks,” he said.
For her part, Ellmers is confident. “I look forward to continuing to represent my neighbors and fellow residents of the second district,” she said in a statement emailed to Carolina Journal. “I will continue to fight for more accountable and efficient government in Washington. We must repeal and replace Obamacare, cut burdensome regulations, stop runaway spending, and get Americans back to work.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.