State Politics

Conservative bonafides at issue in 2nd District Republican primary

Rep. Renee Ellmers and Rep. George Holding face off Thursday during the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary debate at WRAL studio in Raleigh.
Rep. Renee Ellmers and Rep. George Holding face off Thursday during the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary debate at WRAL studio in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Renee Ellmers fought the federal healthcare law back when it was just an idea, railed against plans for a “victory mosque” near ground zero on national television and won an endorsement from Sarah Palin in 2010 on her way to defeating the 2nd Congressional District’s veteran incumbent Democrat.

But, as she seeks a fourth term in a restructured district that pits her against a fellow Republican congressional incumbent, Ellmers is fighting to get to the November general election by batting away criticism that she is not truly conservative.

In addition to opponents Greg Brannon and U.S. Rep. George Holding, she faces national interest groups that are working for her defeat. The Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-backed group that Ellmers worked with before she ran for office, is running ads against her.

I don’t care about these political score cards that are kept by these groups. It’s not a metric of conservative.

Rep. Renee Ellmers

Ellmers said she voted in the best interests of the district, not to satisfy interest groups that seek to control members of Congress. She points to seven pieces of legislation she sponsored that became law, some woven into other bills.

“I will not be beholden to anyone other than my constituency,” she said. “I don’t care about these political scorecards that are kept by these groups. It’s not a metric of conservative.”

The winner of the June 7 primary has a good chance of winning the seat in November. The legislature designed the district to elect a Republican.

Holding, who represents the 13th District, is running in the 2nd after a reshuffling of district lines moved the 13th to the middle of the state, leaving Holding a resident of the Democratic-leaning 4th District, held by veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price. Holding does not live in the 2nd District; residency is not required.

Groups such as the N.C. Values Coalition, which opposes abortion, and the American Conservative Union endorsed Holding, who is running for a third term.

Ellmers and Holding are battling over their voting records. Ellmers maintains that Holding votes against the district’s interests, while Holding says she is misrepresenting his record. Two Holding campaign ads begin with a narrator saying, “You have have to take Renee Ellmers with a grain of salt.”

I’m the outsider. I’m truly Constitutionalist.

Greg Brannon

Brannon, an obstetrician who twice has run for the U.S. Senate, jumped into the race after losing a March primary to incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. Brannon has little money but said name recognition carried over from his Senate campaigns gives him an advantage.

In a year when voters prize anti-establishment candidates, Brannon said he fits that prescription.

“I’m the outsider,” Brannon said. “I’m truly Constitutionalist.”

Joe Stewart, executive director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation, said in a race with two office holders, Brannon, with his tea party connections, is in a position to siphon votes from both.

Their bills

In her first year in Congress, Ellmers became allied with the House Republican leadership, a posture that disappointed some former supporters who didn’t like compromises Republican leaders were striking.

There aren’t many races other than congressional in the June 7 primary, so turnout is expected to be light, attracting the most dedicated voters. In such conditions, the endorsements Holding is attracting could be a factor, Stewart said. “With a small turnout, anything that gives a competitive advantage to one candidate over the other has a significant impact,” he said.

As of early April, Ellmers had reported raising $1.3 million for the election, while Holding reported $1.4 million. Holding is a member of the family that controls First Citizens Bank, the largest family-controlled bank in the country.

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“So far, from what we’ve seen, Holding’s campaign has been able to run a more robust broadcast campaign,” Stewart said. “Because of his personal wealth, he may be able to do that in a way Rep. Ellmers may not be able to respond.”

Holding, a former U.S. Attorney, has not attracted the kind of national attention afforded others in the state delegation. He said he’s working behind the scenes, using his seat on the influential House Ways and Means Committee to prepare for a tax-code overhaul.

Ways and Means has broad authority over taxes, Social Security and Medicare, and trade agreements with foreign governments.

Holding sees setting the stage for comprehensive tax reform as one of his greatest accomplishments this term. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, has said he plans to unveil a GOP-written overhaul to the tax code next month.

 
 
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The “blueprint,” Holding said, has been in the works for several years. The last time Congress passed comprehensive tax reform was 1986 – when Ronald Reagan was president – and lawmakers toiled for a long time over the plan, Holding said.

Last year, Holding came in on the low end of total bills introduced in the House, compared to other representatives from North Carolina, according to a non-partisan “report card” from the website GovTrack.us.

While his bill-filing activity was lower than other members, Holding was the only member of the N.C. delegation to have one of his bills become law as a standalone measure. That successful 2015 bill was related to U.S. trade agreements and included assistance for American workers who lost jobs because of outsourcing.

I want to spend my energy on things that are actually going to happen, or have a chance of happening.

Rep. George Holding

Often, members file bills which later are folded into broader legislation as provisions or amendments. In Ellmers’ case, that happened four times last year with bills she wrote on healthcare and energy issues which were signed into law after passing as add-ons to other bills.

Holding said Washington is “dysfunctional” and he prefers to stay away from introducing bills that have no chance of passing. The majority of legislation drafted and even the bills that are voted on, he said, are done for “messaging” sake.

“Messaging has its place,” he said. “But when I introduce a bill, I want somebody to look at it and say, ‘Hey, this thing might happen.’ 

“I want to spend my energy on things that are actually going to happen, or have a chance of happening.”

He recently introduced a bill that would reassign the IRS’ criminal investigation agents to the U.S. Treasury. It stands a chance to pass the House, where Republicans have been vocal in their complaints against the IRS complaints. Whether the bill could pass the Senate or if President Barack Obama would sign it if it did, is unclear.

Turning to Trump

Ellmers has gone from being a prominent GOP leadership representative to a backer of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Ellmers appeared on TV talking about Trump support in Congress and wrote the Trump entry for Time magazine’s 100-most-influential-people edition.

Ellmers voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in a Chatham County GOP straw poll days before voting for Trump in the March primary. Ellmers said she voted for Trump after talking to constituents. Trump is setting an example for involving Americans in politics, “a relationship we’ve been striving for in the party for quite some time.”

Stewart, head of the Free Enterprise Foundation, said if her alignment with House leadership is a problem, Ellmers could see her support for Trump, an anti-establishment candidate, as an asset.

Ellmers has been criticized for a number of votes she has made in the House, including many where she voted with the Republican majority.

She split with the North Carolina Republican delegation over the effort to move forward the approval of the Export-Import Bank, an independent federal agency that provides loans, credit insurance and loan guarantees to U.S. exporters and foreign buyers to finance the export of U.S. products. Fees and interest cover its expenses. Americans For Prosperity worked hard to kill the Ex-Im Bank, as it’s called, and that’s a big reason why the group is working against her. Businesses lobbied heavily to renew the bank’s charter.

Elllmers said her decision to support the Ex-Im Bank was an example of backing constituents. Companies in the district use the Ex-Im Bank to support jobs, she said.

“There are over 30 Ex-Im banks in other countries,” she said. “Why would we in the United States take ourselves out of that competition?”

The bank re-authorization was attached to the highway bill and passed the House last year on a 363-64 vote.

Holding called the Export-Import Bank “the crown jewel of crony capitalism.”

He said people used the transportation bill as “cover” to vote for the Ex-Im Bank. They knew, he said, they could tout a vote “for good roads” as a plus, despite the inclusion of the Ex-Im Bank re-authorization.

“I’ve always been opposed to it … But they ground on those members and ground on them. And the leadership kept looking for a bill – a must-pass piece of legislation – to put that Export-Import Bank re-authorization into. And finally they found it. They had ground down enough members – desensitized them through the lobbying effort.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

Greg Brannon

Age: 55

Education: B.S., University of Southern California, 1982; M.D., Chicago Medical School, 1988; completed residency at University of Southern California Women’s Hospital in Los Angeles County, 1992.

Professional experience: Since November 1993, he has had a private practice in Cary as an obstetrician and pelvic surgeon.

Political resume: Has run twice for U.S. Senate. Never held public office.

Family: Wife, Jody, and seven children.

Web site: gregbrannon.nationbuilder.com

Renee Ellmers

Age: 52

Education: Bachelor’s degree in nursing from Oakland University in Michigan

Professional experience: Was a nurse for 20 years before she ran for Congress, most recently at her husband’s practice in Dunn

Political resume: Defeated Democratic incumbent Bob Etheridge in 2010. Currently in her third term representing North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District.

Family: Husband, Brent, and one son.

Web site: www.reneeforcongress.com

George Holding

Age: 48

Education: Wake Forest University, Wake Forest School of Law, 1996

Professional experience: Practiced law in Raleigh; 1998-2002, served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms; 2002-2006, assistant U.S. Attorney, 2006-2011, U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s eastern district

Political resume: Two terms representing North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District

Family: Wife, Lucy, and four children.

Web site: georgeholdingforcongress.com/

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