Christensen: Look to Ellmers' example to see why Washington is broken

rchristensen@newsobserver.comOctober 12, 2013 


Congresswoman Renee Ellmers

To understand why Washington is in gridlock, all one has to do is look at the example of Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn.

Ellmers was elected to the House in 2010 with the support of the tea party movement and as an outspoken opponent of the health care law formally titled the Affordable Care Act, or what is commonly called Obamacare. It was opposition to the the president’s health care proposal that got Ellmers, a nurse recruited by Americans for Prosperity as part of their campaign against the legislation, involved in politics in the first place. She was endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as one of her grizzlies.

When she got to Washington, true to her word, she continued to oppose the health care law. She voted against Obamacare more than 40 times and has spoken against it frequently.

Her voting record is among the most conservative in Congress. According to the nonpartisan National Journal, her voting record in 2012 was the 43rd most conservative in the House, which put her to the right of Paul Ryan, Michele Bachmann, and Eric Cantor. In the North Carolina delegation, only former Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte had a more conservative voting record last year.

Regardless of what you think of her politics, Ellmers has taken her responsibilities seriously. She has worked closely with House Speaker John Boehner and the House GOP leadership team, has been a frequent party spokeswoman on TV, and is chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee.

Like the House Republican leadership, Ellmers was initially reluctant to shut down the government as a tactic to block funding of the health care law.

"Absolutely not," Ellmers said. “Why would I trade one economic disaster for another economic disaster?”

That reluctance put Ellmers in hot water with the tea party.

The pressure began to build when the latest tea party hero, Mark Meadows, a freshman GOP congressman from the mountains of North Carolina, led a group of 80 Republicans in writing a letter to House Republican leaders urging to them use the vote on the bill needed to keep the government running as a showdown on Obamacare.

Heritage Action, an offshoot of the conservative Heritage Foundation, spent $550,000 on a digital advertising campaign this summer against a number of Republicans – including Ellmers – who had not agreed to shut down the government to defund the health care plan. It was Heritage Action that recruited Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to begin a national tour to build support for using the continuing resolution as a tactic.

“Why is @Heritage_Action spending $550,000 to attack conservatives but not @ (Sen.) Kay Hagan who was a deciding vote on #Obamacare?” Ellmers tweeted. “Should we stop #Obamacare? YES!. But @ Heritage_Action strategy w/Continuing Resolution is wrong.’’

Publications put out by FreedomWorks and National Review Online ran critical articles, saying she was wrong. ran an unflattering photograph of her in its story about the dust-up.

At a town hall meeting in early September, Ellmers was given a hard time by Dee Park, a 76-year-old grandmother from Pinehurst who was part of Heritage Action’s Sentinel program, which trains conservative activists across the country. She questioned Ellmers about why she wasn’t voting to defund Obamacare and why her record was not more conservative.

In response to another question, Ellmers said: “Yeah, Steve, my score with Heritage Action isn’t that great, 57 percent, it’s above 50 percent, but you’re putting all of your weight into an organization that, one, raises money and has to continue to raise money to stay relevant. And they pick and choose who they’re going to target and who they don’t.”

Conservatives like to complain about the power of the liberal media. Conservatives such as Ellmers pay little attention to the liberal media. But they listen very carefully when voices on the right begin weighing in: Heritage Action, FreedomWorks and the conservative blogosphere.

“So Renee Ellmers – once the darling of the Tea Party – is now the doyenne of the D.C. GOP establishment,” wrote North Carolina conservative blogger Brant Clifton.

“Time to ask Republicans to primary her,” wrote a conservative blogger called “NCRenegade.”

And so they may.

A couple of weeks ago, Jim Duncan, the chairman of the Chatham County Republican Party, said he was beginning an exploratory effort to challenge Ellmers, saying there was a “a craving for leadership.”

Not surprisingly, Ellmers buckled under the pressure and voted with most of the Republican caucus against the continuing resolution – thereby voting to defund the health care program and shut down the government.

The 2nd District, which includes much of southern and western Wake County and parts of eight other counties, used to be politically competitive. Because of redistricting, it has now become much more Republican. Ellmers won her last election 56 to 41 percent during a year when there was a large Democratic turnout.

So if Ellmers has anything to fear politically, it is a primary challenge from her right. The pressure will always come from party conservatives urging her to take the most conservative position, to never compromise with Democrats.

It is the same situation in congressional districts all across the country, where gerrymandering has caused political silos. There is no incentive for members of Congress to compromise or to work together. But there is constant pressure to take the most strident, ideological positions.

Ellmers has a voting record to the right of Michele Bachmann. And she is under fire for being ideologically impure. This is why we have gridlock.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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