U.S. Rep. George Holding of Raleigh defeated a fellow incumbent to win a third term in one of the most-watched congressional primaries in the nation.
Rep. Renee Ellmers’ defeat marks a major fall for a politician who was once a television political show staple and who worked to recruit Republican women to run for office. Holding presented himself as more conservative than Ellmers.
Holding was leading Ellmers by about 30 percentage points with 90 of 158 precincts counted. The pair also faced a tea party connected candidate in North Carolina’s 2nd District.
Five Democrats were competing in that party’s primary. John P. McNeil, a Raleigh lawyer, was ahead of the candidate in second place by 27 points.
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The winners of the two primaries go on the November election. The district was drawn to give the Republican candidate the advantage.
Holding challenged the 2nd District incumbent, Ellmers, after Holding’s 13th District was moved from the Triangle to the Triad when the legislature redrew the districts in response to a federal court ruling.
Ellmers is taking heat for some of her votes, including for a bipartisan budget deal, and for helping delay in 2015 a vote on a bill outlawing abortion after 20 weeks.
The third Republican candidate, Greg Brannon, has roots in the tea party and a solid core of supporters in the district from his two U.S. Senate campaigns. He filed to run in the congressional primary after he lost the Senate primary in March and has described himself as the true Washington outsider.
Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, has run a low-money race that relies heavily on grassroots energy. As such, he has remained, for the most part, out of the heavy media and mail campaigns run by the two incumbents that have inundated voters with mail and phone calls.
Attacked by opponents as being too close to the U.S. House leadership, Ellmers became an outspoken supporter of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Ellmers announced Saturday that Trump had endorsed her and recorded a robo-call for her as she seeks a fourth term.
Ellmers has criticized Holding for the overseas trips he has taken at taxpayer expense and has tried to paint him as ineffective.
An Ellmers mailer features a Photoshopped image of “Multi-Millionaire George Holding” surrounded by stacks of money in an airport terminal. Another Photoshopped image shows Holding on a plane with a flute of champagne in front of him.
A Holding mailer says Ellmers “voted for Obama’s budget deal with the Washington insiders.”
Groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Susan B. Anthony List, a group opposed to abortion rights, gravitated to Holding.
Americans for Prosperity, a group connected to the wealthy industrialist Koch brothers, was once an Ellmers ally. She was drawn in to politics by her opposition to the proposed federal health care law that became the Affordable Care Act. She worked with AFP-North Carolina denouncing the proposal. But AFP turned against her this year, sending people into the district to convince voters to turn her out of office.
Conservative groups have spent nearly $1.2 million this year trying to defeat Ellmers, lead by about $790,000 from Club for Growth Action, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Susan B. Anthony List also had people knock on more than 12,000 doors to knock Ellmers out of office. The group says Ellmers betrayed them when she worked to convince House leadership to delay a vote on legislation making abortions illegal after 20 weeks. The vote was to be in January 2015 when abortion opponents from around the country were in Washington for a March for Life. The bill passed months later, with Ellmers voting for it.
The bill was a top priority for the Susan B. Anthony List, said communications director Mallory Quigley. “We are in the business of supporting pro-life leaders,” she said, and had backed Ellmers since her first run for office in 2010, when she upset a veteran Democratic incumbent.
For Ellmers to “actively work in a very public way against our legislative priorities” was a “profound betrayal,” Quigley said.
Voters on Tuesday said they were put off by the negative campaigning. But they held different views on who leaned on the tactic most.
Richard Wood, 48, said he’s received lots of phone calls and lots of mail about Ellmers and Holding.
The computer engineer from Holly Springs said he voted for Holding.
“A lot of negative campaigning turned my opinion a lot,” he said, and Ellmers did much of it.
But John Knall, a retired project manager from Holly Springs, said his vote for Ellmers was a rejection of Holding’s negative campaigning.
“That’s the thing that swayed me, the incessant claims he was so conservative,” Knall said. “When Renee Ellmers was elected, she ran as a conservative and now the conservatives are making her sound as liberal as Clay Aiken. That’s certainly not the truth.”
Aiken, who came to fame on American Idol, lost to Ellmers in the 2014 general election.
Staff writers Grayson Logue and Bryan Anderson contributed.
George Holding: 52.53 percent
Renee Ellmers: 23.92 percent
Greg Brannon: 23.56 percent
John P. McNeil: 49.55 percent
Jane Watson: 22.72 percent
Ron Sanyal: 10.54 percent
Steven E. Hight: 10.03 percent
Elton R. Brewington: 7.16 percent