Politics & Policy

Will Renee Ellmers Become Conservative Activists’ Next Primary Target?

(Alex Wong/Getty)

A former county Republican-party chairman is primed to open the next theater in the running fight between grassroots activists and GOP lawmakers viewed as too moderate or cozy with party leadership.

North Carolina congressional candidate Jim Duncan hopes to unseat Representative Renee Ellmers. “If that means that I’m not going to have a lot of friends in Washington, well, okay, I’m very secure,” he tells National Review. “I’m not looking for any accolades or any awards. I just want to go get this job done.”

GOP operatives across the political spectrum think he has a shot. Lack of fundraising support doomed Ellmers’ last primary opponent, but Duncan is posting strong initial figures, boosted by money he donated to his own campaign. Ellmers, meanwhile, has alienated some wings of the fiscal and social-conservative base, most notably by forcing House Republican leadership to delay a vote on a 20-week abortion ban in January. As a result, her reelection primary has the potential to take on the kind of internecine symbolic significance usually reserved for Senate campaigns.

Duncan argues that Ellmers has lost touch with her district since taking office, thereby creating an opening for a conservative with connections to the grassroots. “I would wager that over the last five years, at our district conventions, the representative has not spent more than a half-hour there,” he says. “After a while, that wears on people.” His campaign cites the time Ellmers was caught on tape telling a tea-party activist that he “didn’t have any damn facts” to back up his assertions about immigration policy to argue that she is unresponsive to the conservative grassroots. “This happens on a regular basis,” Duncan says. “I’m going to bring a different viewpoint to the district. I’m going to listen. I’m going to be responsive.”

Ellmers’s team argues that her critics are the ones who are out of touch with the district. “There were a lot of folks from outside the district and frankly outside the state that were trying to rile up the district, and it really just hasn’t worked,” says Ellmers’s senior advisor Patrick Sebastian. “People know that she’s a conservative and I don’t see any groundswell against her in the district.”

Her voting record has caused angst in some quarters of the party, at least. Ellmers has a 57 percent rating on a scorecard developed by the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative outside group, gives her a 61 percent lifetime rating. And her prominent role in forcing GOP leadership to postpone a long-awaited vote on the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which had been timed to coincide with the March for Life, angered many social conservatives. (Ellmers voted for the legislation, which bans abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy, in May, after lawmakers revised provisions having to do with its exceptions for rape and incest.)

Most of that record was in place in 2014, though, when Ellmers defeated an anemically funded primary opponent with 59 percent of the vote. “It’s a very costly district to run in because of the media markets that it’s situated in, and so any challenger is going to have to have the ability to generate a lot of internal campaign support or have external friends that are willing to weigh in to help them,” says Paul Shumaker, another GOP strategist from the state.

Duncan has made a solid start on that front, raising over $200,000 since late February — half of it from his own pocket. That gives neutral GOP consultants reason to believe he can make the race competitive. “That’s a real number,” says Carter Wrenn, a veteran North Carolina operative. “Even if a hundred of it’s from Duncan, it’s a number that’s a real number, it shows that they’re doing something.”

Duncan argues that Ellmers has lost touch with her district since taking office, thereby creating an opening for a conservative with connections to the grassroots.

He’ll need a lot more than that by the end of the race. Ellmers has raised almost $500,000 this year, including $281,970 in the most recent fundraising quarter, her senior adviser tells NR. Disinterested operatives expect her to raise over $1 million throughout the campaign.

She can also expect the support of the same leadership-aligned PACs and organizations that spent millions of dollars defending Representative Mike Simpson (R., Idaho) from a similar conservative challenge. “The speaker and the majority leader and the majority whip really want her to get reelected,” says another senior GOP strategist. “She’s an articulate, telegenic woman and our party is trying to close and eliminate the gender gap.”

To give Ellmers a run for her money, Duncan will need the support of prominent activist groups, according to Wrenn and other GOP operatives who discussed the campaign. Those organizations aren’t ready to commit to the upstart yet, but he’s on their radar. “We’re watching the race,” says Club for Growth spokesman Doug Sachtleben.

Of course, if he does secure outside backing, it might play right into the hands of the Ellmers campaign, which is prepared to portray Duncan — who became involved in North Carolina politics in 2010 after moving to the state from Connecticut in 2008 — as an ineffective carpetbagger.

“He just moved here a few years ago from Connecticut,” says Sebastian. “He becomes a county chairman in his county and Republicans went from controlling the county commission to losing the county commission to Democrats — in a Republican year, I might add, in 2014. So, he did damage to his own county; I don’t think people want him to do damage to the Second District and lose another race here to a Democrat.”

Duncan’s been encouraged by his early showing, but he still has a lot to prove if he’s going to defeat the three-term incumbent. “At the end of the day, I think that congresswoman Ellmers will be reelected,” says Dee Stewart, who has worked with Ellmers in the past but isn’t involved in this campaign. “She’s worked hard, she’s well known, and the leadership in Congress strongly supports her reelection.”

That may be a double-edged sword, though. “I think her problem is that she ran, or did originally, as a tea-party type and she’s really been . . . more aligned with the Washington establishment than they expected,” says Carter Wrenn. “It’s not necessarily just Tea Party. That abortion thing after 20 weeks, that shook up a lot of people in her district.”

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