WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers is mulling a bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014 but has some obstacles to consider: a competitive primary field, attacks on her record and a so-far meager campaign war chest.
In the primary, Ellmers would face formidable challenges, especially if two top North Carolina state legislators, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Phil Berger, decide to run.
Ellmers is calculating her options but not talking about it publicly. Although she ran as a tea party-supported outsider in 2010, she soon aligned with the House Republican leadership.
The 2nd District representative from Dunn gained exposure and a seat on the important House Energy Committee. But she also got anger from the right.
The Club for Growth, a powerful conservative political action group, for one, is attacking her. The anti-tax group criticizes Ellmers on its website for a string of votes, including one to increase the debt ceiling in 2011, which also included large spending cuts, and another for a broad funding bill to avoid a government shutdown, which included money for the presidents health care plan.
We dont like her, spokesman Barney Keller said. The Club for Growth PAC doesnt support liberals like Renee Ellmers for Congress.
That criticism is echoed on The Daily Haymaker, a conservative North Carolina blog. Meanwhile, Heritage Action, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative advocacy group, gives her a 63 percent approval rating on the seven votes it scored so far this year.
Other conservatives see her record differently. The American Conservative Union gave her a 91 percent rating for 2012.
Ellmers shares positions on key issues with other Republican conservatives, including opposition to any new gun control measures and a stance on immigration that emphasizes border security. She does not advocate a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally.
The money hurdle
But even if Ellmers defends her conservative credentials successfully, she still would have to find a lot of supporters with fat wallets. In the first quarter of this year, she raised only $100,000.
Both Berger and Tillis have proved to be effective fundraisers. In the 2012 election cycle, Tillis and Berger each raised $1.7 million for their personal campaign accounts and millions more for their party.
I think shed be a great candidate, but I think she would have problems raising money, said Marc Rotterman, a North Carolina Republican strategist, who said that a Senate race would cost a minimum of $8 million to $10 million.
Rotterman said that Ellmers would be a clear contrast with Hagan and appeal to what he called an important group of voters, women ages 35-45.
Hagan, elected in 2008, is viewed as one of several vulnerable Democratic senators seeking re-election next year.
But a recent poll by the Democratic-learning firm Public Policy Polling still had Hagan leading all possible GOP contenders. And Hagan had raised $1.6 million for her campaign during the first three months of this year.
The same poll, taken in mid-April, showed Ellmers would receive 12 percent of the vote in a hypothetical GOP primary, ahead of both Berger and Tillis but behind state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, whose name has also been mentioned as a contender.
Ellmers was a long-shot candidate when she first ran for Congress less than three years ago, riding on tea party support as an alternative to out-of-touch Washington insiders. She beat incumbent Democrat Bob Etheridge by less than 1 percent of the vote.
Once in Congress, she took some positions that supported the views of House leaders in the face of opposition from some on the right. In the 2012 primary, she faced three Republican challengers who argued that shed become the insider.
After winning the primary, Ellmers had an easy race against Democrat Steve Wilkins. She vastly outspent him, and Republican redistricting gave her an advantage.
Taking on Hagan would mean giving up that safe House seat.
Shes established herself, Rotterman said. Shes well-liked by the leadership in Congress. Shes got plenty of time to run for anything she wants in the future. So I dont think its critical that she runs this time.
Staying mum on her plans
Ellmers and her staff declined requests for interviews.
Congresswoman Ellmers is praying about it, discussing it with supporters and monitoring how things develop, said Jessica Wood, an Ellmers spokeswoman in North Carolina who handles queries about the congresswomans political plans. She expects to have a decision in June.
Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N. C. State University, said that for now, the primary is shaping up to be competitive. If Ellmers gets in the race, her competitors main attack, he said, will be that she wobbled when she went to Washington and didnt deliver on the type of change she promised.
Sal Russo, a Republican political consultant with the national Tea Party Express, said he has met with about four possible primary candidates in the race in North Carolina, but not with Ellmers yet. He said the group was still talking to tea party members in the state and looking at candidates but was not ready to back anyone.
Other Republicans said to be weighing a Senate run besides Tillis, Berger and Berry include the Rev. Mark Harris, who campaigned for the same-sex marriage ban that voters passed last year, and former Charlotte City Council member Lynn Wheeler.
Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina Democratic strategist, said it appeared that Ellmers still had credentials with the tea party, and so the criticism that she was too close to the GOP establishment might not hurt her too much in a primary.
She has a lot of business community relationships as well, Jackson said. And naturally, being female in the primary race, especially when most of the candidates talking about running are males, can only be helpful to her.
He said that should she run and survive the GOP primary, Ellmers would certainly be a serious candidate in November.
Ben Ray, a spokesman for the N.C. Democratic Party, disagreed. He said Ellmers may have gone too far with some of her positions in Washington for moderates and the states growing number of independents who would vote in a Senate race.
Ray listed her vote for an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood, co-sponsorship of a bill that declares that human life begins with fertilization and effectively bans abortion, support in 2011 for a bill that would have eliminated all federal funding for abortions, and her vote against the Democratic version of the Violence Against Women Act.
With an uncertain primary ahead, Congresswoman Ellmers viability as a Senate candidate is yet to be seen, Ray said.