U.S. Rep. George Holding of Raleigh defeated a fellow incumbent — and a Donald Trump ally — in one of the most-watched congressional primaries in the nation.
Rep. Renee Ellmers’ defeat in the GOP contest marks a major fall for a politician who was once a television political show staple and who worked to recruit Republican women to run for office. Holding presented himself as more conservative than Ellmers.
“You go to Washington and you think you vote the right way,” Holding said at his victory party Tuesday night. “I try to vote in a conservative manner, and you wonder sometimes, do people even notice? This primary gave me the opportunity to learn that people do notice.”
With all precincts reporting, Holding defeated Ellmers by about 30 percentage points. Ellmers squeaked out a second-place finish by less than a percentage point over tea-party-connected candidate Greg Brannon.
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Five Democrats competed in that party’s primary. John P. McNeil, a Raleigh lawyer, won with about 46 percent of the vote.
Holding and McNeil now go on to the November election. The district was drawn to give the Republican candidate the advantage.
Holding challenged the 2nd Congressional District incumbent, Ellmers, after Holding’s 13th District was moved from the Triangle to the Triad when the legislature redrew the districts in response to a federal court ruling.
Ellmers is taking heat for some of her votes, including for a bipartisan budget deal, and for helping delay in 2015 a vote on a bill outlawing abortion after 20 weeks.
Brannon had a solid core of supporters in the district from his two U.S. Senate campaigns. He filed to run in the congressional primary after he lost the Senate primary in March and has described himself as the true Washington outsider.
Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, ran a low-money race that relied heavily on grassroots energy. He remained, for the most part, out of the heavy media and mail campaigns run by the two incumbents that inundated voters with mail and phone calls.
Attacked by opponents as being too close to the U.S. House leadership, Ellmers became an outspoken supporter of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Trump. Ellmers announced Saturday that Trump had endorsed her and recorded a robo-call for her as she seeks a fourth term.
Ellmers criticized Holding for the overseas trips he has taken at taxpayer expense and tried to paint him as ineffective.
“I respect George Holding for being elected to Congress, but he is not a doer, and I fear for the people of District 2,” Ellmers said after conceding the race. “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he does a good job representing the people, even though he doesn’t live in the district itself.”
Groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Susan B. Anthony List, a group opposed to abortion rights, gravitated to Holding.
Americans for Prosperity, a group connected to the wealthy industrialist Koch brothers, was once an Ellmers ally. But AFP turned against her this year, sending people into the district to convince voters to turn her out of office.
Conservative groups spent nearly $1.2 million this year to defeat Ellmers, led by about $790,000 from Club for Growth Action, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Susan B. Anthony List also had people knock on more than 12,000 doors to knock Ellmers out of office. The group says Ellmers betrayed it when she worked to convince House leadership to delay a vote on legislation making abortions illegal after 20 weeks. The vote was to be in January 2015 when abortion opponents from around the country were in Washington for a March for Life. The bill passed months later, with Ellmers voting for it.
Some of those groups applauded her defeat Tuesday night.
Ellmers said the special interests aligned against her did not like her message “which is compassion and looking to empower women to make better choices.”
Some voters Tuesday said they were put off by the negative campaigning. But they held different views on who leaned on the tactic most.
Richard Wood, 48, said he’s received lots of phone calls and lots of mail about Ellmers and Holding.
The computer engineer from Holly Springs said he voted for Holding.
“A lot of negative campaigning turned my opinion a lot,” he said, and Ellmers did much of it.
But John Knall, a retired project manager from Holly Springs, said his vote for Ellmers was a rejection of Holding’s negative campaigning.
“That’s the thing that swayed me, the incessant claims he was so conservative,” Knall said. “When Renee Ellmers was elected, she ran as a conservative and now the conservatives are making her sound as liberal as Clay Aiken. That’s certainly not the truth.”
Aiken, who came to fame on “American Idol,” lost to Ellmers in the 2014 general election.
Ellmers said she remains dedicated to supporting Trump in his campaign for the White House.
“I believe when God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window,” she said. “And that’s where we’re going to be headed.”
Staff writers Bryan Anderson and Grayson Logue contributed.
George Holding: 53.38 percent
Renee Ellmers: 23.64 percent
Greg Brannon: 22.99 percent
John P. McNeil: 46.13 percent
Jane Watson: 23.46 percent
Steven E. Hight: 11.32 percent
Ron Sanyal: 10.67 percent
Elton R. Brewington: 8.42 percent