Raleigh, N.C. — Congresswoman Renee Ellmers and Congressman George Holding are fighting a civil war of sorts that will leave at least one of them without a job at the end of the year.
Both have run as conservative Republicans ready to buck Washington, D.C.-based political leaders and, until February, would not have openly clashed very much, if at all. But they now find themselves pitted against each other and Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary in an unusual and unanticipated June 7 primary for the Republican nomination in the 2nd Congressional District.
The winner of the three-way GOP primary will face whichever of five Democrats wins the primary. There are no runoff elections this year, so a candidate with less than 40 percent of the vote could become his or her party's nominee.
Both Ellmers and Holding are making the case that they have proven themselves to be the more conservative representative and are focusing on a handful of votes to draw distinctions between their voting records. Meanwhile, Brannon insists neither has kept pledges to curb federal spending and debt.
"They're incredibly similar, so it's more a battle of perception," media and politics professor Joseph Cabosky said of Holding and Ellmers.
Ellmers is a three-term incumbent in the 2nd District. Holding has represented the 13th Congressional District for two terms. Both members filed for the chance to keep those seats in December, but a February federal court order junked the state's current congressional districts, ruling that two were unconstitutionally drawn based on race.
State lawmakers had to draw new districts and schedule a special primary. While the primaries in most contests across the state were settled in March, voters will pick Republican, Democratic and Libertarian nominees on June 7 for North Carolina's 13 U.S. House seats. They also must choose which two of four candidates for Supreme Court will vie against each other in November.
The redrawn congressional map moved the 13th District west of Greensboro. Holding now lives in the 4th Congressional District, a liberal-leaning enclave that would be unlikely to support a conservative Republican. So, he decided to ran in the 2nd District, although he lives just outside its boundaries, because much of the redrawn 2nd District – it covers Harnett, Franklin and Nash counties and includes parts of Wake, Johnston and Wilson counties – takes in territory that previously was in the 13th District.
Congressional candidates don't have to live in their districts as a matter of law, although Ellmers and Brannon both live in the new 2nd District. Brannon said the area overlaps nicely with where the patients for his ob-gyn practice live.
So, while the 2nd District is still nominally and literally Ellmers' home turf, more than half the voters are those Holding represented over the past four years.
That should make Holding a favorite in this unusual incumbent-on-incumbent matchup but not a prohibitive favorite, said Steve Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. While it's logical to assume voters familiar with Holding might stick with him, the June primary date is unusual and, with few races on the ballot, likely to be a low turnout affair.
Greene calls Brannon "a huge wildcard." While he hasn't won a primary yet and is fresh off a March 15 loss to Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, he has drawn a respectable numbers of votes in both of his elections and has a solid base of support among conservative voters who are likely to be active in this primary.
Brannon's presence in the race "mixes things up enough that it won't surprise me for any of the three to win," Greene said.
Based on how voters in prior elections have behaved, the newly drawn 2nd District favors the Republican nominee in the fall general election.
Marking their contrasts
One of the clearest contrasts between Ellmers and Holding was drawn by a vote on a topic most voters probably don't have top of mind: The Export-Import Bank of the United States. The ExIm Bank provides credit to foreign buyers so they can more easily buy goods from American manufacturers.
Backers say it steps in to fill the void when the private sector won't facilitate trade. Critics, like Holding, say it's an unnecessary boondoggle.
"The ExIm Bank, to me, is a prime example of crony capitalism," Holding said during a recent interview.
The private sector, he said, would step into the void if the bank went away. He voted against the October 2015 reauthorization of the bank.
Ellmers backed it, pointing to more than 6,000 jobs in the current 2nd District tied to manufacturing companies aided by the bank.
"In a perfect world, we wouldn't need it," Ellmers said of the bank. "But when I found out the number of jobs it was going to affect, that had to be my priority."
Much of the debate between Holding and Ellmers runs like this, with Holding insisting his more ideologically pure stance could eventually win the day, while Ellmers saying that pragmatism needs to temper those conservative stands.
That willingness to bend has spurred groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by political donors associated with billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, and Club for Growth to air television ads critical of Ellmers. Club for Growth Action president David McIntosh cited the ExIm Bank vote as one reason why the group got involved in the race.
"The special interest groups needed a straw man," Ellmers said, dismissing the criticism of the ExIm Bank and other votes as excuses to raise money based on "an extortionists' scorecard."
She also questioned whether Holding's connection to the banking industry – his family founded First Citizens Bank – has something to do with his reluctance vote for a government-backed bank.
For his part, Brannon also opposes the ExIm Bank, calling it "corporate welfare" and questioning whether it's something the federal government can legally do.
"Can you show me where in the Constitution the ExIm Bank is?" Brannon asked.
Brannon is an obstetrician who has made his mark as an outspoken abortion opponent and who has served as medical director for a medical crisis center that urges women not to have abortions. He said his first action in Congress would be to push for a sanctity of life bill to outlaw abortions.
"It's really important to understand that nobody in this race has had the trust placed in them to deliver more than 6,000 babies other than me," he said.
Despite that commitment, Susan B. Anthony List, a conservative nonprofit that is active on abortion issues, endorsed Holding in the race, bypassing Ellmers and Brannon.
"I thought that was a real slap in his (Brannon's) face," Ellmers said.
Rather, the move was aimed at Ellmers herself, a nurse who once had the backing of anti-abortion groups. But she raised those groups' ire by stopping and forcing changes in a 20-week abortion ban making its way through the U.S. House in 2015.
"At a crucial moment in the battle to fight for the rights of unborn girls and boys, Congresswoman Ellmers worked behind the scenes to thwart legislation that would have protected them from five months until birth," said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a group allied with the Susan B. Anthony List.
Making charges, counter-charges
The most heated exchanges in the race have come over how the federal budget has been handled. All three candidates say the government spends too much, but they all pin the blame elsewhere.
Brannon has been critical of both incumbents, saying they have voted for spending that he would have opposed.
"If you like the government the way it is, then they're your people," Brannon said. "I'm the anti-establishment constitutional conservative."
Ellmers and Holding do have similar voting records but have separated on a handful of votes, most of them dealing with spending.Holding voted against a farm bill because he said it contained too much money for food stamps. Ellmers argues that the measure actually increased oversight of the food stamp program and provided critical aid for farmers.
Ellmers has attacked Holding for opposing an omnibus budget deal that included funding for the military, using that as a topic of fliers mailed to households in the district. Holding argues that the House's political leadership did the expedient thing in making a deal with the Obama administration rather than holding firm to calls for spending cuts.
He calls Ellmers' attack on military spending "double talk," saying that, if Republicans would hold firm, they would get better budget deals.
"When Ellmers comes out and says, 'I take the hard votes,' when you translate that double-talk, it means, 'I vote for stuff my constituents are really going to be upset about, but it's what leadership has asked (me) to vote for,'" Holding said.
Ellmers said those compromise votes are actually the fault of members like Holding who are so unyielding they're unwilling to compromise with their own party's leadership.
"When members like George Holding say, 'I will not vote for this or that,' then we as Republicans are forced to go to our Democrat counterparts and say, 'Look, OK, we're going to have compromise on this.' We're in the majority, but we need the votes to pass a military funding bill so we can go fight ISIS."
In an interview on Saturday, Ellmers criticized Holding for outwardly portraying himself as a fiscal conservative but spending lavishly on overseas congressional travel. She pointed to a trip to India where more than $30,000 in costs were attributed to Holding. She also pointed to other trips where Holding had upgraded his ticket to fly business class, which cost thousands of dollars.
"The person that George Holding presents himself as and the person he is behind the scenes (are) completely different," Ellmers said. "He votes against a single mom that gets (food stamp) benefits to support her family, but then he sits in first class."
Holding and his campaign staff reject that characterization. Because Holding led a congressional delegation to India, costs for the entire group for things like security and translators was attributed to him. As for upgrading flights, it's something that many members of Congress have done, including Ellmers, according to Carter Wrenn, a consultant for Holding's campaign.
"This is like everything else Renee Ellmers throws up on the wall. You're just end up trying to set the record straight," Wrenn said.
By and large, Holding and Ellmers have reserved their ire for one another, ignoring Brannon. But when asked about Brannon, Ellmers pointed to a $175,000 debt he owes the IRS and a state case against Brannon for misleading investors. Wrenn has also taken note of those troubles in an online journal that he writes.
In an interview, Brannon attributes his problems with the IRS to issues that stemmed from his prior campaigns, saying that he was constantly attacked for his stands. He has entered a repayment arrangement with the agency.
"The IRS bloodsuckers are going to get their money. I'll pay them every single penny I owe ... and I hope when I get in there I'll have bill to abolish the IRS," Brannon said.