GOP redraw, ads jolt give Ellmers edge in race with vet

Retired Lt. Col. who planned Iraq invasion has upped ground game

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 1, 2012 

  • Candidates for District 2 Steve Wilkins Democrat Born: Durham Career: Wilkins, a 22-year member of the U.S. Army, trained in the Special Forces, the Green Berets, and served with them in the 1991 Gulf War. In the first year of the Iraq war in 2003, he was Gen. David Petraeus’ logistics specialist. He planned the move of military equipment from Fort Campbell to Kuwait for the invasion and continued to keep Petraeus’ division, the 101st Airborne, supplied in Iraq. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and works for the Boeing Co. Political experience: Worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative affairs officer for the military’s U.S. Transportation Command. Family: He and his wife, Meg, a teacher, live in Whispering Pines. Their son, Andrew, is his campaign manager. Daughter Claire Margaret attends Appalachian State University. Renee Ellmers Republican Born: Michigan Career: Ellmers, a registered nurse for more than 21 years, and her husband, Brent, a doctor, run the Trinity Wound Care Center in Dunn. Political experience: Elected to U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 Family: Her son, Ben, is a student at Cape Fear Christian Academy.

— Democrat Steve Wilkins, running in a tough congressional race against Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers, says his 22 years of military service – which include a key role in planning the invasion of Iraq – show the spirit of public service Washington needs to break the partisan logjam.

Wilkins is at the polls every day, introducing himself to early voters. But the odds are against him. National Democrats haven’t poured money into his campaign. And Ellmers, with much more cash, has another big advantage: The Republican legislature redrew her district in her favor.

Still, Ellmers is a freshman, and 65 percent of voters in District 2 were in another congressional district in the last election. Wilkins hopes independents and disgruntled Republicans will swing his way.

He’s been campaigning for a year, ramping up in recent months. August vacation was spent getting votes. In September, he took a leave of absence from his job at the Boeing Co.

“When you don’t have all the special interest and PAC money, you have to be out on the ground and beat feet,” Wilkins said.

He shows up wherever there are voters. In a cold wind this week outside the squat, red-brick Old West End School gym in Moore County. At a bull auction in Alamance County. The NASCAR festival in Randleman. The traditional after-church voting in Fayetteville.

Ellmers, a nurse who runs a medical business in Dunn with her husband, a doctor, also has been out meeting people in the district, but said they’ve been local officials and business owners. She has spent a good bit of time at rallies and events supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the entire state Republican ticket.

She said she’s running again “because there’s so much more work that needs to get done in Washington.”

“Hopefully we’re going to get a Senate majority again so we actually have a partner to work with,” she said. With a Republican Senate and president, “then we can have a policy that will work and create jobs. That’s the No. 1 issue.”

Ellmers said she hasn’t gone to polling stations. “On Election Day that’s my focus, to hit as many precincts as I possibly can.”

The congresswoman is acting like an entrenched incumbent, and she can do that because she has a strong advantage, said Thomas Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University.

“She’s a Republican in a year when at least in that part of the state, the Republican candidates are going to run very well,” he said. “In addition, she’s a conservative and this district is very conservative, including some conservative Democrats.”

When the districts were redrawn this year, the more conservative sections of surrounding counties were added to the already Republican-leaning district. In 2004 and 2008, the district voted for the GOP presidential candidate.

“Redistricting helped Renee Ellmers more than any other Republican House member in the state,” added David B. McLennan, a professor of communication and political science at Peace University. “Her fundraising has been solid, and even though she has only recently started running television ads and has been far less visible and aggressive than she was in 2010, the Democrats were very unlikely to pick up this seat.”

Ellmers narrowly defeated Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge in 2010. Her top issue, then and now, was opposition to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”

Ellmers said in an interview that she favored a plan that mostly relies on the private sector for health insurance and changes Medicare along the lines the Republican-controlled House has passed. That plan would let beneficiaries opt to receive a fixed federal subsidy that could be used toward private insurance or a plan similar to Medicare.

Wilkins said he likes the president’s health care law, noting that it provides coverage for people now uninsured, starting in 2014.

“I think it’s going to be good for North Carolina and the people in this district,” and it will help support economic development, he said. He calls for implementing the plan, getting advice from business people about how it works, and fixing any flaws.

Census figures show that 16.8 percent of people in District 2 don’t have health insurance. Nationwide more than 48 million people are uninsured.

Wilkins said he decided to run as a result of the squabbling in Congress in 2011 over the debt ceiling.

The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the nation’s credit rating then, saying the deal Congress reached hadn’t done enough and that the political battle raised questions about whether American political institutions were capable of managing the economy.

As a result of the 2011 law, deep automatic cuts, including for defense programs, and tax hikes go into effect at the end of the year – the so-called fiscal cliff that threatens the economy – if Congress can’t reach a budget plan.

“That’s an irresponsible way to legislate,” Wilkins said. “We’re not electing people with a sense of public service.”

Wilkins also proposes ways to boost the district’s economy. He calls for infrastructure development and lower taxes for small businesses.

Ellmers in the summer of 2011 disappointed some tea party supporters by joining with House Republican leaders and urging other House members to vote for the debt-limit plan. She argued at the time that it was “not 100 percent of what many of our very conservative colleagues want, but it is about 70-75 percent.” She said it was the best step possible at the time, since bigger House-passed cuts were blocked in the Senate, where Democrats are in control.

Ellmers said her other top issue is “creating an environment for the private sector so they can be hiring again.”

Both candidates say their backgrounds prepare them for work in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ellmers has said her experience as a nurse and businesswoman help her understand health care issues.

Federal Election Commission data shows Ellmers spent just over $1 million, more than half of it from political action committees. Wilkins spent $67,547, almost all of it from individuals and only $2,150 from the national Democratic Party.

The Republican Party hasn’t needed to support Ellmers because she’ll be easily re-elected, said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek. “She’s a rising star.”

But some local Democrats say Ellmers hasn’t brought federal money back to the district. They also say that Ellmers has turned down invitations, such as one by the Moore County League of Women Voters, to debate with Wilkins.

The two candidates appeared together in one joint interview. It was conducted by WRAL as part of its “On the Record” program on Saturday and posted on the station’s website. Broadcasting, however, was delayed because of Sandy coverage.

rschoof@mcclatchydc.com

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