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Christensen: Gunning for Ellmers in the 2nd District

Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers speaks to supporters and reporters after defeating Clay Aiken for re-election in the 2nd Congressional District, Nov. 4, 2014, at the Barrington House in Dunn, N.C.
Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers speaks to supporters and reporters after defeating Clay Aiken for re-election in the 2nd Congressional District, Nov. 4, 2014, at the Barrington House in Dunn, N.C. tlong@newsobserver.com

Jim Duncan’s first TV ad begins with him standing in front of a bale of hay with some chirping chicks on top.

“Here’s the thing about career politicians – they’re chicken,” says Duncan, a former chairman of the Chatham County Republican Party and a retired businessman. “No offense, guys,” he says to the chickens.

It is a soft-soap, humorous ad. But Duncan’s campaign is likely to have more of an edge as he tries to tap into Republicans’ anti-establishment mood to defeat 2nd District Rep. Renee Ellmers in the GOP primary March 15.

The 2nd District has the hottest congressional primary in the area.

The main reason is that some voters thought they were getting a Ted Cruz conservative when they elected Ellmers in 2010, only to find she more resembles Jeb Bush. Indeed, Ellmers has angered many conservative activists and interest groups with some of her positions.

“Because of her record, she could be vulnerable,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran GOP strategist. The question, Wrenn said, is whether of any of her opponents can put together a substantial campaign.

Ellmers is likely to have a campaign kitty of $1 million to $2 million – which would give her a good head start in winning the 40 percent of GOP voters she needs to capture the primary, Wrenn said.

None of Ellmers’ four challengers – all campaigning from her right – are very well known. They are Duncan, former congressional staffer Kay Daly, radio talk show host Frank Roche and businessman and perennial candidate Tim D’Annunzio.

Duncan appears to be in the best position financially to mount a serious challenge, not only because he is a successful businessman but because he has the backing of Club for Growth, a national conservative group with deep pockets.

Ellmers, a former nurse, was elected to Congress as a Tea Party favorite promising to oppose President Obama’s health care plan. While she has often opposed Obamacare, she has disappointed some backers by becoming allied with the House Republican leadership in Washington and the business community at home.

On his campaign website, Duncan refers to Ellmers as a “liberal.” Daly ran a TV ad last fall that described her, among other things as a “RINO” – a “Republican In Name Only.”

All of that reminds me of the 2002 Republican primaries, when an opponent of Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole compared her to Hillary Clinton, and a congressional opponent of Virginia Foxx ran a TV ad that showed Foxx’s face morphing into Clinton’s. Both Dole and Foxx were elected.

Ellmers is, by most objective measures, a conservative. The nonpartisan National Journal rated her the 97th most conservative of the 435 House members in 2013, the 43rd most conservative in 2012 and the 15th most conservative in 2011.

Heritage Action for America, a conservative group, rates her record as more conservative than those of the state’s two senators – Richard Burr or Thom Tillis.

But the question is whether she is conservative enough for GOP voters this year.

She gets a mediocre rating from the conservative Club for Growth. The club has endorsed Duncan – their first endorsement of a challenger during this election cycle.

“She campaigned as a Tea Party candidate, but sided with Nancy Pelosi in reauthorizing the corrupt Export-Import Bank,’’ a spokesman for the club said.

That Export-Import Bank issue showed some of the fault lines in the GOP. Ellmers sided with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. The lobbying effort was led by Boeing and General Electric for the Export-Import Bank, while the Club for Growth lobbied against it.

The reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, created in 1934 to issue loans, guarantees and insurance to promote U.S. exports, generated lots of debate. But it passed the House 313-118 last year with a majority of Republicans voting for it.

Supporters said the bank helped the economy; critics said it risked taxpayer money and permitted the government to pick and choose winners and losers.

Ellmers has alienated grassroots conservatives in other ways. As chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee, she has been looking for ways to expand the GOP’s appeal among women. Last year she led a group of Republican women in sidetracking a measure that would restrict a woman’s right to have an abortion after 20 weeks except in the case of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is in danger. Under the bill, women would have to first report the rape to law enforcement if they wished to have a late-term abortion. But Ellmers and other congresswomen were concerned that too many women do not report rape. After sidetracking the bill, Ellmers later voted for a modified version.

She also has been seen as a Republican moderate on immigration. She was among 75 House Republicans who voted to pass a Homeland Security spending bill that did not try to block President Obama’s executive order on deferred deportation.

Ellmers certainly does not fit any generally accepted definition of a moderate. But in a primary where Donald Trump and Cruz are expected to draw conservatives to the polls, she may be in for a fight.

Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532, rchristensen@newsobserver.com, @oldpolhack