Renee Ellmers, the three-term congresswoman who rose to power in 2010 denouncing the imaginary “Ground Zero mosque,” seems to have hit a rough patch of late.
First, conservative activist Kay Daly jumped into the GOP primary race for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district with a quite-literal bang: In a TV ad that went viral, Daly denounced Ellmers for being a RINO—Republican In Name Only—and blasted a shotgun while announcing that she’s “hunting rinos.”
To those of us who exist outside of the tea party’s fever dream, the idea that Ellmers is insufficiently conservative is ludicrous. But in a Republican Party that is both lurching rightward and coming apart at the seams, this proposition is quickly becoming accepted fact.
Indeed, in addition to Daly, Ellmers already has two other challengers, outgoing Chatham County GOP chairman Jim Duncan—who this summer matched Ellmers in fundraising—and Frank Roche, a conservative economist who unsuccessfully challenged her in 2012.
But Kay Daly wasn’t Ellmers’ biggest headache last week. The congresswoman found herself at the center of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s abandoned campaign for Speaker, which may have been undone in part by a widely circulated rumor that he and Ellmers were Netflix-and-chilling, even though they’re both married to other people. (Shortly before McCarthy bailed, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones sent out a letter urging candidates with ethical issues not to run, which added fuel to the fire. Jones later said his letter was not directed at McCarthy.)
While congressional allies, both Ellmers and McCarthy have vehemently denied the alleged affair, and there’s reason to believe them. The rumor was propagated most forcefully on right-wing blogs that had McCarthy in their sights. It’s entirely possible that Ellmers was simply caught in the crossfire. And no one has produced evidence confirming the affair. Politics being what it is, if someone had the goods, you’d probably know it by now.
Even so, bad PR is bad PR, and Ellmers has struggled in primaries anyway. She got 56 percent in 2012 and 58 percent in 2014. (She’s had an easier time in the general.) With three challengers in the race—and an anti-establishment current running strong in the GOP—it could be difficult for Ellmers to meet the 40 percent threshold she needs to advance to the general election without a runoff.
True or not, the rumor won’t help, says Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State. “Both she and McCarthy pretty strongly refuted the rumor, and I think most people take people at their word when they say that,” Taylor says. “But even if it isn’t substantiated, the rumor will continue to circulate, and people will remember it at least.”
The bigger problem for Ellmers, says Carter Wrenn, a conservative political strategist and co-publisher of the blog Talking About Politics, is her reputation for being a part of the establishment.
“Most Republican voters in the primaries don’t approve of the job our leaders have done in Congress, and [Ellmers] is seen as being allied with [outgoing Speaker] John Boehner,” Wrenn says. “Renee ran as a tea partier, an outsider, and in Washington she allied herself with the leadership.”
Taylor agrees. “She went native, and what’s interesting is, this is demonstrative that she got too cozy with the leadership,” he says.
Primary voters began questioning Ellmers’ fealty to the cause after she derailed a House bill banning abortion after 20 weeks earlier this year by insisting on an exception for rape, Taylor and Wrenn say. Even before that, right-wing pundits were calling for her head. In January, the blog RedState ran a story headlined “Renee Ellmers is worse than a Democrat,” and blowhard extraordinaire Mark Levin called her a “fraud” on Facebook.
These aren’t positive indicators, especially in a party that increasingly elbows out moderates. And there’s no sign her opponents will let up, even if she was a victim of Washington skullduggery.
This weekend, Roche released a video of Ellmers, at a candidate forum in 2010, saying she thinks three terms in Congress are enough for anyone. “Renee Ellmers should keep her word about fairness and not file for reelection in December of 2015,” Roche wrote in an email to his supporters. “Is three terms reasonable, or is she being unreasonable?”
Republican voters will decide in March.
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