Politics & Government

Rep. Renee Ellmers caught up in Capitol Hill drama

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A second North Carolina Republican was swept up Friday in the drama swirling over selection of the next leader of the U.S. House.

At a closed-door meeting, Rep. Renee Ellmers thanked her GOP colleagues for their “prayers and support” after they’d received what she called “nasty emails” accusing her of having an affair with GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.

McCarthy on Thursday abruptly quit the race to succeed Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. His withdrawal came after Rep. Walter Jones of Pitt County had cryptically urged leadership candidates to withdraw if they’d committed any “misdeeds.” Jones told the Observer Friday the letter was triggered in part by the Ellmers-McCarthy rumors.

McCarthy’s decision has left House Republicans in disarray, with no clear candidate to take the post that is two heartbeats from the presidency.

Ellmers has bristled at online reports that tied her to McCarthy, rumors repeated in an email this week to Republican lawmakers.

“As someone who has been targeted by completely false accusations and innuendo, I have been moved by the outpouring of support and prayers from my colleagues, constituents and friends,” she said in a statement. “Now I will be praying for those who find it acceptable to bear false witness.”

‘Indisputably false’

Earlier this week Ellmers, who is married, sent a “cease and desist” letter this week to GotNews.com, a website that alleged earlier this year that the two were having a long-running affair.

In the letter to conservative blogger Charles C. Johnson, Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr said, “Every allegation and insinuation of improper conduct between Mrs. Ellmers and Majority Leader McCarthy is unequivocally and indisputably false.”

Johnson is a California blogger known for incendiary posts. Politico reported that he was banned from Twitter last May after asking for donations to help “take out” an activist protesting police shootings in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

On Thursday, the rumors were repeated in emails to GOP lawmakers from Steve Baer, a conservative donor from Chicago who once promised to “dine on RINO flesh,” using the disparaging acronym for Republicans in Name Only.

Ellmers addressed the rumors – and the emails – at a closed-door meeting of GOP members Friday.

According to Politico, her spokeswoman Blair Ellis said Ellmers “thanked members for prayers and support as a result of the nasty and malicious emails being circulated by outsiders. The Associated Press reported that she described the messages as “bat---- crazy.”

‘So much disgust’

Meanwhile, Jones said the rumors played into his decision to write the letter, in which he said Republican leaders have been embarrassed by “skeletons in their closets.”

His letter specifically mentioned former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Rep. Bob Livingston. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican, had been selected as Gingrich’s successor when he acknowledged an affair and withdrew. Jones told the Observer he first heard the McCarthy rumors months ago and again more recently.

“That and some other issues triggered my thought process,” he explained. “That was not the sole (reason), but it was part of several of my concerns that caused me to write the letter. ...

“There’s just so much disgust out there among the American people; you need to have men and women in the Republican Party who are above reproach.”

The news underscored the influence of the Internet and social media in driving the news.

“I almost describe it as the ‘Wild West of the Web,’ where anything can be put up and oftentimes takes on a life of its own,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “And with the proliferation of Twitter and Facebook and blogs, if you repeat something enough it almost becomes fact whether it’s the truth or not.”

In a bizarre twist, the conservative website Daily Caller reported that someone with an IP address from the Department of Homeland Security added the affair rumors to Wikipedia pages of Ellmers and McCarthy. The entries were removed.

A Homeland Security spokeswoman told the Caller that the department “has immediately launched an investigation into this serious matter.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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