U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers has been weathering a storm of criticism over her withdrawal of support from a late-term abortion ban bill, and it shows no sign of lifting.
The Republican congresswoman’s criticism of the bill was the second move in the first month of the new year that angered many in her base and embarrassed the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives. Earlier, Ellmers declined to support efforts to rein in President Barack Obama’s executive orders that temporarily shield some people in the U.S. illegally from deportation.
Jim Duncan, chairman of the Republican Party in North Carolina’s Chatham County, said many people have been urging him to run against Ellmers in the primary next year for her Second Congressional District seat. Duncan said in an email this week that if he runs “it is because I want to better represent issues that matter to my community and reflect their values.”
He didn’t criticize Ellmers, but others did.
“I think this is going to be a hard thing for the voters in her district to get over,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition said. “Groups like mine are going to continue reminding people.”
But Billy Ray Godwin Jr., an attorney in Dunn who is an Ellmers friend and supporter, said he didn’t think she would be hurt politically once people understood what she was trying to change in the legislation.
“I will say this: there is nobody any more pro-life than Renee Ellmers,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s the big picture.”
But regaining her credibility could be challenge, said Marc Rotterman, a Republican media strategist in Raleigh.
“Clearly she created a firestorm in the district of her own making,” Rotterman said. “She has had several unforced errors. She has time to recover, but there is a lot of damage she has to repair.”
On Jan. 20, Ellmers officially withdrew her support for a bill that would ban abortions at 20 weeks and later, a measure she fully supported in 2013. That was two days before the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, and the annual March for Life in Washington.
A few days earlier, Ellmers was quoted as telling Republicans at a closed congressional retreat that she had urged the leadership to reconsider bringing the bill up for a vote during the week of the anniversary and march. Ellmers told National Journal she thought the bill would cost support among young people.
Late on the eve of the anniversary, her party’s House leadership, which doesn’t include Ellmers, decided to pull the abortion bill off the schedule, where it was expected to be voted on. Before that decision was announced, though, Ellmers reversed field and said through Facebook that she had decided to vote for it after all.
Since then, she has declined requests for an interview.
Her spokeswoman, Blair Ellis, said that Ellmers had originally withdrawn her co-sponsorship of the measure to ban abortion after 20 weeks because she objected to a requirement that victims of rape or incest report the crimes to authorities in order to be exempted from the law’s restriction. Ellis said Ellmers later decided to support the bill even if the requirement wasn’t removed because it “overwhelmingly aligns with her pro-life conservative beliefs.”
Ellis also said that Ellmers didn’t encourage other Republican House members to vote against the bill or remove their names as co-sponsors. But she said that most other Republican women in the House and some of the men also disagreed with the requirement to report rape and incest to authorities.
But the criticism back home for Ellmers has been strong. Protesters gathered outside her Washington office on Jan. 22, and her office phones were ringing with angry comments, a staffer acknowledged. Groups that oppose abortion said they felt betrayed.
Linda Devore, chairwoman of the Cumberland County Republican Party, said she thinks there’s “growing dissatisfaction with whether or not Congresswoman Ellmers really matches up well with the very conservative values of the 2nd District.”
“A lot of people are very unhappy because they don’t understand why you would need an extension for a rape victim,” Devore said. “How many rape victims wait until they’re five months pregnant until they decide whether to have an abortion or not? “It doesn’t compute for people.”
Others stressed Ellmers’ strong opposition to abortion.
“People have a tendency to get upset about things and they don’t look at the big picture,” said Barry Bunting, chairman of the Randolph County Republican Party.
Ellmers supported the abortion ban bill, but “she just had an issue with some parts of it,” he said.
But anti-abortion groups were not buying her explanations.
“We’ve been making sure that every one of her constituents knows exactly what she’s done and that she can’t be trusted any further,” said Barbara Holt, president of North Carolina Right to Life, which lobbies against abortion. “She was telling us one thing to our face and doing something else behind our back.”
Holt said Ellmers was the “most vocal” lawmaker among those who wanted to change or delay the abortion bill.
“You don’t work to keep legislation from being voted on if you are in support of it and you are totally pro-life as she claims to be,” Holt said.
Fitzgerald said NC Values Coalition didn’t pick sides in Ellmers’ 2014 primary victory over Frank Roche. The coalition had criticized Ellmers for not supporting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that voters passed overwhelmingly in 2012.
Ellmers said during a debate with her Democratic opponent, Clay Aiken, in 2014 that she believed marriage is between a man and a woman, but thought the state amendment went too far in banning civil unions.
Fitzgerald said last week that Ellmers, who had been “pretty solid on pro-life issues,” suddenly derailed “one of the biggest pro-life bills of this decade.”
In its legislative rating, the National Right to Life Committee has given Ellmers a perfect score on abortion
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the fourth-ranking members of House leadership, said at Thursday’s march that the House leadership remained committed to getting the 20-week abortion ban passed. Its prospects in the Senate are less certain. Republicans now control the Senate, but are six short of the 60 needed on most votems.