By SEUNG MIN KIM, POLITICO
Renee Ellmers is in a highly unusual position for a House Republican: She is the only GOP incumbent facing a primary challenge centered on her support for immigration reform.
The North Carolina Republican is one of a handful of House GOP lawmakers to publicly advocate legalizing the millions of immigrants who are here illegally. Her views sparked a Republican challenge from economic commentator Frank Roche, who is skewering Ellmers for favoring “amnesty.”
Most observers think Ellmers — a nurse and former tea party favorite — is likely to win the intraparty fight on Tuesday. Still, reform advocates, particularly those on the center-right, are closely watching her race as a test case of how much the politically charged issue of immigration will matter in GOP primaries. Republicans had feared that conservatives, stoked by grass-roots anger and help from outside groups, would descend on the districts of members who sided with the reformers.
But in a surprise to some, Ellmers’ fight has been the exception to the rule in this year’s House GOP primary contests. Despite conservative threats, the slew of anti-immigration primary challenges — for the most part — simply haven’t materialized. Of course, Democrats could still badger Republicans on immigration come November.
Filing deadlines for more than 80 percent of sitting House Republicans elapsed as of the end of April. And advocates closely tracking GOP primaries could name only Ellmers’ race as one where an incumbent House Republican is facing a primary precisely over his or her immigration stance.
Reps. Sam Johnson and John Carter of Texas — two Republican negotiators in a bipartisan House group that painstakingly tried to negotiate a House immigration bill with a pathway to citizenship — breezed through their March 4 primaries without much being made of their advocacy. Johnson walloped his challenger by 80 percent, and Carter didn’t even have an opponent.
The Mark Zuckerberg-backed advocacy group FWD.us argued earlier this year that only one incumbent congressional Republican lost to a primary opponent primarily because of immigration in the past decade: then-Utah Rep. Chris Cannon to Rep. Jason Chaffetz in 2008.
“It’s essentially a nonissue in most of these races,” said Jeremy Robbins, the executive director of the Michael Bloomberg-backed Partnership for a New American Economy, which supports immigration reform. But he added: “It concerns me any time that someone who is very, very good on this issue is challenged.”
A wide array of immigration advocates, lobbyists, North Carolina political observers and reform critics interviewed believe Ellmers will prevail, but several think the primary could be closer than the sophomore lawmaker would like because of immigration.
Even with a primary threat, Ellmers has refused to back down. She’s held several immigration events in her 2nd District, including a Feb. 19 roundtable with a slew of pro-reform groups. And she’s even scolded a constituent who disagreed with her on immigration, telling him in an exchange caught on video: “You don’t have any damn facts.”
Her campaign declined a request for an interview with Ellmers, as it did in other stories where Roche was featured. In a phone interview, Roche said he wants to enforce the immigration laws on the books and that he believes “multiculturalism is a problem for our country.”
Roche — who previously ran unsuccessfully in the GOP primary in another North Carolina district, as well as for state treasurer — opposes efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants and supports sharply reducing the number of people who legally immigrate to the United States.
“There are 20 or so members who have made clear that they are supportive of amnesty, and she is one of them,” Roche said. “Renee’s position is the position of John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and President Obama.”
By most metrics, Ellmers should win. She has eclipsed Roche in fundraising — as of mid-April, she had raised more than $950,000, compared to Roche’s paltry $23,000. She hasn’t been pummeled during her reelection bid by influential outside groups. As a nurse, she is an ideal spokeswoman against Obamacare — key to revving up the Republican base.
But Roche’s conservative backers hope he can capitalize on what they argue is deep grass-roots distaste for Ellmers’ thumbs-up to overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, including some kind of legal status for those who are in the country unlawfully.
“She’s gotten an earful from our members in North Carolina for weeks now,” Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, said of Ellmers.
His group, one of the most prominent to oppose immigration reform efforts on the Hill, doesn’t get directly involved in political races. But NumbersUSA can quickly activate thousands of its members to contact lawmakers at their congressional offices, which Beck said it has certainly done with the group’s 5,300 members in Ellmers’ district.
Some conservative activists, led by radio host Laura Ingraham, have recently began circulating a “no-amnesty pledge” for congressional candidates to sign, but that’s still a nascent effort.
Of course, many House Republicans have stayed mum on the topic of immigration, avoiding public statements that could earn them a challenger.
But Ellmers spoke out.
In the mold of other House Republicans like Mike Coffman of Colorado who have said they favor immigration reform, she penned an op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer in January, saying while she doesn’t back “amnesty,” undocumented immigrants — particularly those who have long worked and lived in the country — can’t be ignored.
“I believe that in addition to securing our borders, the best course of action is one that provides an earned legal work status that would not be given indiscriminately,” Ellmers wrote.
Immigration reform advocates were assiduously courting Ellmers months before that editorial ran. Representing a district that has a high concentration of evangelical voters and pro-reform businesses,Ellmers became a prime target for advocates who viewed the August recess in 2013 as a prime opportunity to sway some potential GOP swing votes in favor of reform.
In late August, Ellmers was part of an immigration discussion in Dunn, North Carolina, that drew farm representatives, business officials and others. She issued a statement after the meeting, stressing a need for a path to legal status and adding: “Immigration reform is essential to building a healthy, growing American economy.”
That, and other similar comments, were what triggered Roche to run.
“She’s a very gutsy member,” said Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a pro-business immigration group that was part of the February event. “She kind of had said something on it and the opponent was already challenging her on it. And she pretty much ran to it. She said, ‘I’m not going to hide from this.’”
But the moment that thrust the Ellmers-Roche primary into the national spotlight was a contentious radio interview earlier this year between the lawmaker and Ingraham, a popular radio host whom Ellmers accused of having an “ignorant position” on immigration.
Advocates were satisfied with Ellmers’ performance, confident that she made a conservative case for immigration reform in enemy territory. Just days after that interview, the conservative arm of Zuckerberg’s advocacy group spent $150,000 on radio and TV ads on Ellmers’ behalf, calling her a “conservative fighter for North Carolina” and declaring: “No amnesty, period.”
But opponents were pleased, too — convinced that Ellmers embarrassed herself in front of a national conservative audience. A headline on Breitbart.com blared that Ellmers had a “pro-amnesty meltdown,” and Roche said his campaign coffers saw an uptick since the show. Ingraham has also been one of Roche’s biggest boosters.
“It was a disastrous interview. It was a gratuitous fight with an exceedingly popular conservative,” said Richard Viguerie, the longtime activist who has endorsed Roche. “That resonated with people: If she picks a fight with one of us, it says she’s not one of us. It will haunt her all the time.”
To her critics, Ellmers’ defiant defense of her immigration views is another example of how she’s lost favor with the tea party, whose support propelled her into victory in November 2010 over then-Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.).
“She’s certainly upset some of the hardest-core activists,” said one longtime conservative operative in North Carolina who is watching the Ellmers primary. “That was somewhat bound to happen.”
An Ellmers campaign spokeswoman dismissed Roche as not a serious candidate, pointing to his fundraising numbers.
“Renee has been clear that she supports finding conservative solutions to the problems facing our country, including immigration and improving access to affordable quality health care,” her campaign said in a statement. “Her focus has been and continues to be on supporting policies that will help create jobs in the district, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and fighting for the families, farms, and small businesses in the Second District.”
Indeed, Roche is running a bare-bones campaign.
The primary phone number listed on his campaign website is his personal cell. He hasn’t raised enough money to conduct internal polls, and he mentions only two paid staffers. He did run ads on TV and radio late last month, which focus on his hawkish immigration stance. But he’s primarily relying on old-fashioned door-knocking and talking with voters.
Ellmers may also be helped by some unique pro-immigration factors in the Tar Heel State, though it’s unclear how that will play in a GOP primary.North Carolina Republicans have often emerged in target lists circulated by advocates as potential votes for reform.
The state has a major agriculture sector and the influential tech-heavy Research Triangle. Those two industries have heavily lobbied lawmakers in Washington for immigration reform.
More than 40 percent of adults in North Carolina identify themselves as evangelical Protestants, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. And in this immigration debate, evangelicals have thrown considerable weight behind reform.
And North Carolina had the eighth-largest population of immigrants who were in the country illegally as of January 2012, with 360,000 people, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics.
“When you look at North Carolina over the last 10 years, the economy has changed dramatically and the demographics have changed dramatically,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
Its Senate delegation was split on passage of the Gang of Eight immigration bill last June – Democrat Kay Hagan voted in favor of the legislation, while Republican Richard Burr opposed it.
“While I think most voters in North Carolina in the Republican primary are closer to Mr. Roche on immigration than Ms. Ellmers, there’s not a consensus among Republicans among that issue,” said Andy Yates, a Republican political consultant in the state.
And Yates added: “I don’t see any chance she could get upset.”
Despite all the obstacles, Roche said he was confident he would triumph.
“Renee’s not an easy challenger,” Roche said. “She’s got herself in a strong position. I just think she’s wrong.”