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Congressional Primaries Push To The Right

An image of Republican Renee Ellmers
Public Domain

North Carolina has 13 members in the United States House of Representatives. Ten are currently Republicans and next week each is expected to file paperwork to run for another term. However, the road to re-election looks different for some members of the GOP.

Incumbent is generally one of the safest words in politics. Even with congressional approval ratings sitting in the mid teens last year - close to the all-time low, 90% of U.S. House members seeking another term prevailed. So, with historically low voter turnout and gerrymandered districts the best chance at unseating a member of Congress is usually during the primary. This election cycle the primary comes almost two months sooner - March 15th, and the races are well underway.

Like 2014 pundits anticipate contested, close, races in the 2nd and 3rd districts. Kay Daly is taking on incumbent Renee Ellmers in the second - a region stretching from Chatham County to Fayetteville. Daly threw her hat, and arms in the race, earlier this year.

This is from one of her campaign ads: "This feminist voted to cut veteran's benefits and gut the military budget. She supported a tax increase and voted to let homosexuals pretend they are married. She's a R.I.N.O who voted to fund Obamacare and to raise the debt ceiling twice to pay for abortions in D.C. and fund planned butcherhoood. She's pro amnesty and voted to let convicted alien child molesters stay in America.  And you know as a Republican you can be a RINO, RINO, RINO. I'm Kaly Daly and this is my message: I'm hunting RINOs, care to join me?"

"RINO - Republican in Name Only," explained Keith Fernandez is an Assistant Professor of Political science and Director of the Elon University Poll. He says her competition is coming from the far right.

"If you ranked all of the Republican delegates in the House of Representative she might be considered the least conservative - and that could put a target on her back," Fernandez said.

It has. And Daly isn't the only one taking aim. Her campaign website describes herself as a conservative activist, and celebrates her ancestors who fought in the North Carolina militia during the revolutionary war. Also in the race is former Chatham County Commissioner Jim Duncan - who out raised Ellmers during the first quarter this year; as well as Frank Roche, who challenged her in the 2014 primary.

For these challengers name recognition, experience as an elected official and an ability to raise money have been long seen as important. But Fernandez concedes those traits aren't as vital as they were just ten years ago. In 2010, Ellmers first won election as a political newcomer, unseating a long-time incumbent.

Money is still important, but in a post-Citizens United election cycle, he says it's different.

"You may be someone who might not have strong name recognition and you personally might not be getting campaign contributions, but there could be a PAC that's getting money and sees that this particular district or race is vulnerable; and they may pump in money criticizing your opponent and that may help you," says Fernandez.

Experts expect several million dollars to be raised in the 2nd district race - much of it coming from outside the state, and late, as the calendar turns from February to March. Another potential factor from the far right is Mark Meadows - a Republican congressman from the western part of the state. He co-founded the Freedom Caucus in January - a group of 38 hard-line Republicans in the U.S. House, working to hold the GOP caucus accountable. He has received ridicule for grinding the already slow pace of Congress, as well as praise for pushing speaker John Bohener to resign.

Asked if he would support Ellmers, or one of the challengers, Meadows offered this: "Coming out and endorsing against a sitting member of congress is not something that I plan to do; certainly that becomes a decision for the people of the 2nd district of North Carolina to make."

Meanwhile, 3rd district Republican incumbent Walter Jones is also seen as vulnerable. The 11-term representative from Eastern North Carolina has aligned more closely with a Libertarian viewpoint - and passed on joining the Freedom Caucus.

They're good people and they've done some good up there and so I'm not being critical, so I'm just saying that I'm not going to give my vote to anyone," said Jones. "My vote is for the people I represent."

Challengers include Taylor Griffin - a former Jesse Helms staffer, who lost a close primary to Jones in 2014; and Phil Law, a marine in his mid-30s, without any elected office experience.

Still, with deregulated campaign finance and a growing distaste for perceived Washington insiders, defeating an incumbent remains a real challenge. Some exploratory efforts will soon become official campaigns and the next hunt for Congress could soon make a stop on your television.

Jeff Tiberii covers politics for WUNC. Before that, he served as the station's Greensboro Bureau Chief.
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