WASHINGTON — After a weeklong recount, Friday's vote tally showed that Republican Renee Ellmers did, indeed, win election to the 2nd Congressional District seat that had been held for 14 years by Democrat Bob Etheridge.
Etheridge acknowledged Friday afternoon what the numbers had said since Nov. 2, that he was ousted by Ellmers, a tea party darling and political newcomer.
Despite the ongoing recount, Ellmers has been acting the role of congresswoman-elect. She was on Capitol Hill all week with other House freshmen, attending orientations, hiring staff and searching for a place to bunk in Washington.
On Friday, just as she was accepting resumes and setting up a new website, the last of the vote counts came in from Lee and Wake counties.
The State Board of Elections will certify the race Tuesday.
"I'm so excited about moving forward," Ellmers said Friday. "I feel a sense of relief that we finally have this part behind us, and now I'm ready to get to work."
Etheridge, a former tobacco farmer and state schools superintendent from Lillington, conceded in Raleigh. Wearing his congressional lapel pin and standing alongside his wife, Faye, Etheridge thanked his staff and supporters. He said he had been honored to hold the public trust of elected office.
"The combination of the national tide that swept the country, massive amounts of secret corporate cash funding a campaign of distortions, and dirty politics by Washington, D.C., partisan operatives was just too much to overcome," Etheridge said. "But what's done is done. I congratulate Mrs. Ellmers and wish her well as she prepares to serve the people of North Carolina's 2nd District."
He leaves office after seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. A moderate Democrat who supported both the stimulus bill and health care reform, Etheridge was the only casualty among North Carolina's congressional incumbents.
Ellmers, a nurse from Dunn, becomes only the second Republican to represent the 2nd District since 1901. (David Funderburk served one term, from 1995 to '97, after the Republican Revolution, before losing re-election to Etheridge.) The balance of power among the state delegation now stands at seven Democrats, six Republicans.
Ellmers could have a good hold on her seat, because Republicans leading the state legislature have responsibility for redrawing the congressional districts next year.
"Yeah, that's going to make a big difference with us," Ellmers said. Still, she added, "I do not plan on making this my lifelong career. I want to come, be effective, help get things stable and then pass the job to someone else."
But first, Ellmers must serve this term.
Etheridge's old office
She joined more than 60 other freshmen House members for orientation this week. A handful, like her, hadn't officially been declared the victors but were invited anyhow. The delay in certification means Ellmers will automatically take over Etheridge's congressional suite in the Longworth House office building rather than bid for a new suite as her freshman colleagues did in an office lottery Friday morning.
Ellmers posed with the others for the official class photo on the U.S. Capitol steps, and she attended all the official meetings and unofficial parties.
Already, she has helped the GOP elect its leadership for the next term. The Republican caucus also passed its earmark ban this week, pledging not to seek the specialized, lawmaker-requested funding that goes directly to congressional districts for projects such as roads, university research and private defense contracts.
Republicans questioned, though, what exactly defines an earmark, Ellmers recalled.
"Is it defense spending?" she asked. "I think it's when multimillion-dollar appropriations get tacked onto bills as they're going forward. When they're agreed upon in committee? Maybe not."
Ellmers knows that as a tea party candidate, she is part of the incoming wave that wonks predicted could threaten existing GOP leadership.
"Early on, the talk was, 'Is leadership going to recognize the freshman class?' " Ellmers said. "They've been great."
She and other freshmen, for example, want to reshape the schedule so that members spend more time back home with constituents and less time in Washington. She is encouraged, she said, that there are freshmen lawmakers on the leadership team.
Ellmers plans to ask to join the Agriculture, Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce committees, though she said she might also be interested in Armed Services or Veterans Affairs.
She has collected a handful of mentors, including conservative U.S. Reps. Patrick McHenry of Cherryville, Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk and Walter Jones of Farmville. Advice ranges from how to hire staff to the proper placement of lapel jewelry.
Ellmers recalled, laughing, how Foxx walked up to her this week and ordered her to switch her congressional lapel pin from the right to the left side of her jacket. ("No one looks at your right side," Ellmers quoted Foxx as saying.) Foxx also gave her a line on a possible apartment a few blocks from Capitol Hill.
Ellmers has hired campaign manager Al Lytton, the former 2nd District GOP chairman, as her chief of staff, and is working on other hires.
Tea party influence
There have been lots of networking opportunities, including private receptions and meetings with other Republicans. On Friday, her husband flew into town to join her for an event at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The week before orientation, she was in Baltimore for a two-day conference with Dick Armey and other candidates supported by tea party interests.
She expects tea party activists to be a watchdog group. "For example, watching me," she said. "I said I was going to be conservative in my voting. And I hope they keep me to that."
Ellmers has general thoughts about what she wants to accomplish in her first year - extend the Bush tax cuts, repeal or de-fund health reform - but no specific bills she expects to introduce right away.
For now, she said, "I'm observing."
When Etheridge called Friday afternoon to congratulate her, Ellmers said, she told him she may call for advice.
"We both live in Harnett County; we live about 20 minutes from each other," she said. "If there's an issue I could use his advice on, I'll definitely call him about it."
Ellmers will be sworn in Jan. 3.
Staff writer Mandy Locke contributed to this report.
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