Renee Ellmers is in a highly unusual position for a House Republican: She is the only GOP incumbent facing a primary challenge centered on her support for immigration reform.
The North Carolina Republican is one of a handful of House GOP lawmakers to publicly advocate legalizing the millions of immigrants who are here illegally. Her views sparked a Republican challenge from economic commentator Frank Roche, who is skewering Ellmers for favoring “amnesty.”
Most observers think Ellmers — a nurse and former tea party favorite — is likely to win the intraparty fight on Tuesday. Still, reform advocates, particularly those on the center-right, are closely watching her race as a test case of how much the politically charged issue of immigration will matter in GOP primaries. Republicans had feared that conservatives, stoked by grass-roots anger and help from outside groups, would descend on the districts of members who sided with the reformers.
But in a surprise to some, Ellmers’ fight has been the exception to the rule in this year’s House GOP primary contests. Despite conservative threats, the slew of anti-immigration primary challenges — for the most part — simply haven’t materialized. Of course, Democrats could still badger Republicans on immigration come November.
Filing deadlines for more than 80 percent of sitting House Republicans elapsed as of the end of April. And advocates closely tracking GOP primaries could name only Ellmers’ race as one where an incumbent House Republican is facing a primary precisely over his or her immigration stance.
Reps. Sam Johnson and John Carter of Texas — two Republican negotiators in a bipartisan House group that painstakingly tried to negotiate a House immigration bill with a pathway to citizenship — breezed through their March 4 primaries without much being made of their advocacy. Johnson walloped his challenger by 80 percent, and Carter didn’t even have an opponent.
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The Mark Zuckerberg-backed advocacy group FWD.us argued earlier this year that only one incumbent congressional Republican lost to a primary opponent primarily because of immigration in the past decade: then-Utah Rep. Chris Cannon to Rep. Jason Chaffetz in 2008.
“It’s essentially a nonissue in most of these races,” said Jeremy Robbins, the executive director of the Michael Bloomberg-backed Partnership for a New American Economy, which supports immigration reform. But he added: “It concerns me any time that someone who is very, very good on this issue is challenged.”
A wide array of immigration advocates, lobbyists, North Carolina political observers and reform critics interviewed believe Ellmers will prevail, but several think the primary could be closer than the sophomore lawmaker would like because of immigration.
Even with a primary threat, Ellmers has refused to back down. She’s held several immigration events in her 2nd District, including a Feb. 19 roundtable with a slew of pro-reform groups. And she’s even scolded a constituent who disagreed with her on immigration, telling him in an exchange caught on video: “You don’t have any damn facts.”
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Her campaign declined a request for an interview with Ellmers, as it did in other stories where Roche was featured. In a phone interview, Roche said he wants to enforce the immigration laws on the books and that he believes “multiculturalism is a problem for our country.”
Roche — who previously ran unsuccessfully in the GOP primary in another North Carolina district, as well as for state treasurer — opposes efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants and supports sharply reducing the number of people who legally immigrate to the United States.
“There are 20 or so members who have made clear that they are supportive of amnesty, and she is one of them,” Roche said. “Renee’s position is the position of John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and President Obama.”
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By most metrics, Ellmers should win. She has eclipsed Roche in fundraising — as of mid-April, she had raised more than $950,000, compared to Roche’s paltry $23,000. She hasn’t been pummeled during her reelection bid by influential outside groups. As a nurse, she is an ideal spokeswoman against Obamacare — key to revving up the Republican base.
But Roche’s conservative backers hope he can capitalize on what they argue is deep grass-roots distaste for Ellmers’ thumbs-up to overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, including some kind of legal status for those who are in the country unlawfully.
“She’s gotten an earful from our members in North Carolina for weeks now,” Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, said of Ellmers.
His group, one of the most prominent to oppose immigration reform efforts on the Hill, doesn’t get directly involved in political races. But NumbersUSA can quickly activate thousands of its members to contact lawmakers at their congressional offices, which Beck said it has certainly done with the group’s 5,300 members in Ellmers’ district.
Some conservative activists, led by radio host Laura Ingraham, have recently began circulating a “no-amnesty pledge” for congressional candidates to sign, but that’s still a nascent effort.
Of course, many House Republicans have stayed mum on the topic of immigration, avoiding public statements that could earn them a challenger.
But Ellmers spoke out.
In the mold of other House Republicans like Mike Coffman of Colorado who have said they favor immigration reform, she penned an op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer in January, saying while she doesn’t back “amnesty,” undocumented immigrants — particularly those who have long worked and lived in the country — can’t be ignored.
Renee won her primary challenge tonighthttp://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2014/05/06/Establishment-Gloats-After-Primary-Victories