N.C. Rep. Ellmers faces challenge from 3 Republicans in re-election bid

McClatchy NewspapersMay 1, 2012 

— Clem Munno is running for Congress. He doesn't expect to win.

He has no political experience, and he's running against a rising star in his own party, Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers.

But he wants to at least send a message to Washington that he and others are unhappy.

So, to the detriment of his aching 69-year-old back, the retired acquisitions consultant from Aberdeen gets up at 5:30 each morning to pound “Munno for Congress” signs into the rocky shoulders of state roads.

“There are always miracles,” he said. “We know that more than 95 percent of incumbents get elected. But if we don’t try and get the ones out of there who are not being effective, then we just keep sending them back to Washington to do nothing. So you got to try.”

It was only a year-and-a-half ago that Ellmers was the long-shot candidate who rode into Washington on a wave of public discontent. The former nurse from Dunn’s message was that beltway politicians are out of touch with everyday Americans.

Now, in her first re-election bid, five challengers want to kick her out of Washington.

Three are Republicans.

They are seeking to paint Ellmers as the embedded insider who has already forgotten why voters sent her to the nation’s capital.

Munno, Sonya Holmes, 48, a Harnett County poultry farmer, and Richard Speer, 54, a Fayetteville nuclear security expert, are challenging Ellmers in the May 8 Republican primary.

While freshman legislators tend to be most vulnerable in their first election campaign, Ellmers isn’t expected to lose. She’s a leader of a freshman class that helped Republicans win back the House. She’s often seen standing next to House Speaker John Boehner for major photo opportunities.

She’s already raised more than $600,000 in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Munno and Speer, who have the next highest total, have around $14,000 each. Holmes has raised slightly more than $2,000. None of her challengers has experience in elected office.

Political scientists say it’s no surprise that Ellmers has drawn so many challengers considering that her district was radically redrawn by the state’s GOP legislature. New voters make up about 60 percent of District 2, according to the Ellmers campaign.

She’s seen as having less of a connection to the new district, leaving her vulnerable to challengers, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

The district encompasses thousands of voters in Wake County now represented by U.S. Reps. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat; Randolph County, now represented by Howard Coble, a Greensboro Republican; and Hoke County, now represented by Larry Kissell, a Biscoe Democrat.

Ellmers says she’s not taking any chances. She has just launched a TV ad. She’s also attending close to a dozen events in eight District 2 counties.

Ellmers knows the criticism against her. But she says it will take time to overhaul Washington and that the party has already changed the dialogue from “how much money can we spend to how much money can we cut?”

“I hear this many times back home that, ‘Oh you shouldn’t be standing there with John Boehner,’ ” she said. “Well John Boehner happens to be the Speaker of the House. He’s kind of the CEO of the House of Representatives. And I think it’s quite an honor to be standing there.”

It’s good for the district, she says, that their representative is standing beside the House leader.

Ellmers is considered North Carolina’s most conservative House member, according to the National Journal’s annual analysis of congressional votes. She’s ranked the 15th-most conservative member in the House.

But many Tea Partyers felt Boehner and Ellmers sold them out when they voted to extend the nation’s $14.29 trillion debt ceiling, a litmus test for some voters.

“She stood with John Boehner on the debt ceiling when most of the people who backed her wanted her to vote against it,” said Laura Long, an organizer with the Triangle Conservatives Unite, a Raleigh-based Tea Party Group. “She’s having some trouble communicating with her base.”

Ellmers defended the debt ceiling vote, saying the deal also included comparable spending cuts – at least $2.2 trillion from federal spending over a decade. Her office queried constituents, and the majority supported the deal as long as it included spending cuts. Her staff reported that of the 1,586 pieces of correspondence received on the debt issue since she’s been in office, only 320 asked not to vote for any increase.

But Speer accused Ellmers of collapsing under pressure.

“I think what happened is she got up there and the leadership went to work on her,” he said. “Certainly there were some votes that required political courage. It was easier to accept offers of place and position in the party and go ahead and go along with the leadership rather than make the tough call.”

Whoever wins the Republican primary will run against the winner of the Democratic primary, either Steve Wilkins, 52, a retired military officer and business development manager for Boeing from Whispering Pines, or Toni Morris, 47, a licensed counselor from Fayetteville, in November.

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