U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers has become one of the go-to Republicans for cable news shows in the past two years.
When the debt ceiling and the government shutdown were national news a year ago, she was on Fox Business Network, MSNBC and CNN, where she appeared opposite Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She’s been a presence on Fox News, criticizing the federal health care law and flaying the new program’s insurance website when it was broken.
Ordinarily, an incumbent Republican in a Republican-leaning congressional district facing a political novice wouldn’t make national news.
But the 2nd Congressional District race is different because the competitor, Clay Aiken, is a former recording artist, launched by “American Idol,” who brings a surplus of name recognition. Aiken is emphasizing his background in special education and says he’ll do a better job on constituent service than his opponent.
“You’re running against someone with strong name ID,” Ellmers said during a campaign stop in Asheboro on a recent Sunday afternoon. “You have to see that as a concern.”
Ellmers, who is seeking a third term, has made a mission during her relatively short time in Congress of encouraging Republicans to tailor their message to female voters and recruiting more Republican women to run for office. In state and national races, women are more likely to vote for Democrats, and only 19 of 233 Republicans in the U.S. House are women.
Ellmers participated earlier this month in panel discussions in Arizona organized by a GOP group encouraging women to vote in the midterm elections.
With that spotlight comes criticism. On a panel this summer on issues facing conservative women, Ellmers said policy discussions should be brought “down to a woman’s level and what everything that she is balancing in her life.” Ellmers responded that her comments were taken out of context.
During the federal government shutdown last October, Ellmers initially wanted to keep her salary, saying “I need my paycheck,” when dozens in Congress were declining their pay. She changed her mind after intense criticism.
Despite those controversies, political observers say Ellmers is likely to win re-election.
No political wave will sweep Democrats into office this year, said Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University. To win, Aiken would need some luck in the form of a mistake by the incumbent.
“There’s nothing Clay Aiken can do to win that seat,” Greene said. “That’s not a knock on Clay Aiken.”
Ellmers’ national status has fueled a campaign line of attack that has dogged her since the primary – that she’s pursued a high-profile career but neglected the folks at home.
“She’s not very available,” Aiken said in an interview. “She’s not accessible. Even those people who do get to talk to her unfortunately oftentimes get berated,” he said, referring to a heated meeting between Ellmers and constituents last winter over immigration.
Ellmers rejects that argument and has assets to bring to the race beyond her party affiliation – staff with long history in the district and the ability to show voters she’s already doing the job.
In August, she hosted a Fayetteville town hall meeting on mental health with a colleague who was traveling the country in support of a mental health bill. This month, she hosted a roundtable discussion in Research Triangle Park on development and production of vaccines.
The 2nd District includes all or parts of nine counties in the central part of the state, including western Wake County suburbs, retirement communities in Moore County, Fort Bragg and the neighborhoods surrounding it. The Democrat who challenged Ellmers two years ago was a retired U.S. Army officer who nearly won Cumberland County.
In this campaign, both candidates have emphasized attention to veterans’ needs.
George Breece of Fayetteville worked on a bill Ellmers sponsored called the Injured and Amputee Veterans Bill of Rights.
“I’ve worked with her and had a chance to observe her,” said Breece, a former chairman of the Cumberland Democratic Party. “She believes in these issues and has proven to me she can work across the aisle.”
Breece, founding executive director of a national orthotics and prosthetics trade group, has met Aiken, too. Breece wouldn’t say for whom he’s going to vote.
“When it comes to veterans, it’s not whether you’re red or blue. It’s about red, white and blue,” he said. “I don’t look at them whether it’s Republican or Democrat. It’s about doing what’s right and best for our veterans.”
Ellmers is also paying particular attention to Moore and Randolph counties this year, since Moore and most of Randolph were added to the 2nd District when political maps were redrawn in 2011.
As Ellmers walked through downtown Asheboro – streets closed to traffic that Sunday afternoon for a fall arts festival – Rebecca Briles served as the candidate’s social icebreaker, introducing her every few steps to someone Briles knew.
Briles is Ellmers’ director of constituent service, and she worked for 17 years for U.S. Rep. Howard Coble when he represented counties that are now part of Ellmers’ district. Coble was legendary for his attention to constituents.
Lately, Briles is more than the official conduit between 2nd District residents and federal services they seek. She also serves as Ellmers’ shield against the accusations she’s been battling since the primary that she’s weak in constituent service.
“If you are the congresswoman whose responsibility is to the 2nd District, that is all your responsibility is, full stop. And it is not to anywhere else in the country,” Aiken said earlier this year.
Ellmers and her campaign adviser mention Briles – though not by name – in response to questions about accusations of slack constituent services. As in, Ellmers has former Coble staff members working for her, so how could that be true?
“We wanted to make sure consistency of constituent services remains,” Ellmers said.
Briles said she was volunteering her Sunday afternoon to spend time with Ellmers, because she’d be at the festival anyway.
One Greensboro man, not a resident of the district, buttonholed Ellmers to complain about his inability to refinance a loan on a commercial property after the appraised value dropped.
Ellmers delivered a line she’d use again later that week: “I had a friend who said Dodd-Frank is to financial services what Obamacare is to health care.” Dodd-Frank is a 2010 federal law regulating the financial services industry.
She met Anthony and Shannon Stockwell, both 43, who said they will vote for her.
“She’s down to earth, friendly,” said Shannon Stockwell, a nurse.
Ellmers spent several minutes at the Randolph Tea Party booth, admiring a rifle the group was offering in a raffle. Unhappy with Ellmers, the group endorsed her primary opponent earlier this year. Aiken suggests he has a chance with Republican voters who don’t like the incumbent.
Robert Youngblood, former chairman of the Randolph Tea Party, did not speak well of Ellmers in an interview (”I don’t think much of her as a person”) but said he will vote for her “as the lesser of two evils.”
Youngblood was part of the group advocating stronger controls on immigration that arranged the meeting with Ellmers earlier this year that turned bitter. Speaking to a Republican women’s club this month, Ellmers emphasized the need for border security and said the bill she filed in September would have the federal government reimburse states for some of the costs associated with people living illegally in the U.S.
Ellmers also supports a form of legal status for people living in the country illegally, a stance that drew a primary opponent and is at the foundation of her disagreement with the Randolph Tea Party, which calls the position amnesty.
“What we feel would be a good plan of action is have individuals come forward and work toward legal status, basically a green card,” she said in an interview. “They admit they broke the law, pay a penalty or fine, we know who they are.”
Youngblood said Ellmers was rude when opponents of that position went to talk to her. Only three people were allowed into her office while the majority had to wait outside.
Youngblood said he used to come to Raleigh to talk about gun rights as part of the Grass Roots North Carolina legislative team and got a better reception from Democratic legislators than he did from Ellmers.
Still, he’ll vote for Ellmers since her primary challenger, Frank Roche, didn’t win.
“There’s no way I would be voting for Clay Aiken,” he said.