Only two other names appeared on the ballot alongside that of U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, but she faced many opponents.
Groups that typically support Republicans spent nearly $1.2 million to defeat Ellmers in Tuesday’s 2nd Congressional District primary election – more by far than outside groups spent against any other congressional candidate so far in this election cycle.
Ellmers was considered vulnerable even before she had to face Rep. George Holding of Raleigh, a fellow incumbent whose victory Tuesday advances him to the general election in November, and Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician who placed third in the race. She’s been a target for being close to the House leadership and for her positions on immigration and the federal budget, among other issues.
“These groups sensed a little bit of blood in the water,” said Joe Stewart, executive director of the NC FreeEnterprise Foundation, and her defeat “sends a clear signal, to their future opponents and to their funders, they are a force to be reckoned with in an election cycle.”
Conservative groups such as the Club for Growth Action, Americans for Prosperity and Susan B. Anthony List worked to defeat Ellmers this year.
Susan B. Anthony List, a group that opposes abortion rights, declared victory when Ellmers lost. Club for Growth Action sent out a triumphant statement applauding her defeat.
Doug Sachtleben, Club for Growth spokesman, said the election results demonstrate the group’s effectiveness.
“With incumbents, it’s always challenging,” he said. “Most incumbents have a pretty good arsenal behind them. This race was different” because an incumbent was going to lose. “That did offer that opportunity to say, if you keep thumbing your nose at those issues and side with leadership, at some point we’re going to at least challenge you, and hopefully win.”
Club for Growth Action spent nearly $790,000 opposing Ellmers this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Americans for Prosperity was next, spending about $205,000. Both those groups promote limited government spending.
Ellmers took some positions those groups oppose, and she angered abortion-rights opponents in January 2015 when she helped delay a House vote on a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks. Susan B. Anthony List organized volunteers to knock on 12,500 doors in the weeks leading up to Election Day. If no one answered their knocks, they left door hangers that among other things called Ellmers a fraud and untrustworthy.
Ellmers nearly matched Holding in fundraising, but she didn’t have enough firepower to counter the messages from the outside groups.
She raised about $1.3 million for the race, but in the six weeks leading up to mid-May took in only about $26,000.
Holding raised nearly $1.7 million, taking in about $266,000 in those six weeks in April and early May, and more after that.
Stewart, of the NC FreeEnterprise Foundation, said two dynamics have emerged with the rise of outside spending in elections. Concentration of resources toward an outcome can make a difference. And, in Ellmers’ situation, “they are as much as anything looking for opportunities to prove their clout,” he said.
Court-ordered redistricting pushed the congressional primaries to June, making the contests easy to overlook even for the most dedicated voters. Turnout was less than 8 percent, the lowest in years.
A general lack of awareness may have magnified the influence of groups that had staff members knocking on doors and calling voters.
“I think we had tremendous impact, given that the turnout was so low,” said Donald Bryson, AFP-North Carolina state director. The lesson in Ellmers’ defeat is that grass-roots work can make a difference, he said.
AFP targeted “high-propensity voters,” or people who reliably go to the polls, with their mail. Still, when representatives talked to those voters, they found that many didn’t know they were in a new district or didn’t know there was a primary.
“We educated people about what the issues were in this election,” Bryson said.