Renee Ellmers, who was the first congresswoman to endorse Trump, rode the Tea Party wave into Congress in 2010. | John Shinkle/POLITICO
Holding, who was first elected in 2012, had 52 percent of the vote with nearly two-thirds of precincts reporting when The Associated Press called the race. Ellmers, a three-term incumbent who was drawn into a new district this year and a rare incumbent-on-incumbent primary with Holding, trailed with 24 percent of the vote. Greg Brannon, a two-time Senate primary candidate, also got 24 percent.
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Donald Trump backed Ellmers and recorded a last-minute robocall that her campaign released over the weekend. It was the first time the presumptive Republican presidential nominee had intervened in a congressional race this year. But it failed to make a difference for Ellmers, who faced over $1 million in outside spending from groups including Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, which were unhappy with her House voting record.
“Tonight sends a clear message to lawmakers that we’re going to hold them accountable for overspending and corporate welfare,” AFP president Tim Phillips said in a statement to POLITICO. “Voters saw through Rep. Ellmers’ support for the Ex-Im Bank and other subsidies and decided they were better off with Rep. Holding. We agree.”
Ellmers, who was the first congresswoman to endorse Trump, rode the tea party wave into Congress in 2010. But she angered conservatives for a series of votes, including ones in support of the omnibus budget, the farm bill and the Export-Import Bank.
“She votes for Obama budget deal and defends herself by saying [Rep.] Holding voted against the military. She voted for the farm bill when it was really about food stamps. That’s what the Washington insiders say to defend themselves,” said Carter Wrenn, Holding’s general consultant who once worked with Ellmers on her previous campaigns. “All we did was untie the knots and it backfired on her. People not only disagreed with her votes, but they thought she was trying to fool them.”
Earlier this year, Ellmers also lost much of her seat to redistricting, after the state’s congressional map was ruled unconstitutional. Ellmers and Holding were drawn into the same district, covering much of the Raleigh suburbs and Fayetteville in central North Carolina. Ellmers retained only 18 percent of her previous district under the new seat, while Holding was a known commodity to 56 percent of the new 2nd district.
Early polling showed “every possible outcome to that race,” AFP’s state director Don Bryson said on UNCTV. Brannon’s late entrance, after he lost to Sen. Richard Burr in the Senate primary, complicated the math for Holding, as Brannon cut into his base. Last month, Wrenn acknowledged that Brannon made it “a horse race.”
But an important factor in Ellmers being turned out was a rift with social conservatives over her brief opposition to the 20-week abortion ban. She stalled a vote planned to coincide with the March for Life in January 2015 — the biggest annual event for anti-abortion groups — to ensure that the rape exception didn’t mandate women to report the rape to police.
GOP leaders agreed to the change, but the measure failed in the Senate. To anti-abortion groups that had previously supported her, including the Susan B. Anthony List and National Right to Life, Ellmers had crossed the Rubicon. Both went for Holding, and SBA List wielded some cash to unseat Ellmers, funding mailers, Facebook ads, calls and a door-to-door strategy that targeted more than 12,000 homes.
“Actions have consequences,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List, told POLITICO recently.
Ellmers also stumbled into a bizarre moment that drew criticism of her Tuesday when she walked into a polling place to vote and greeted an acquaintance by name, telling the woman she had “gained some weight,” WNCN reported.
“You’re eating a little bit too much pork barbecue. Whoo!” Ellmers said to Maggie Sandrock, the former chair of the Harnett County Republican Party, who previously supported Ellmers but backed Holding in the primary.
Other incumbents in the state survived their post-redistricting primary challenges, though some of the margins were tighter than usual. GOP Reps. Walter Jones and Richard Hudson both easily held on to their seats with two-thirds shares of the primary vote, while Democratic Rep. Alma Adams, who moved to Charlotte after her Greensboro base was drawn out of her district, won her primary with 43 percent
GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger leads two Republican challengers by about 100 votes, but the race has not been called yet.