RALEIGH — For some Republican voters, U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers has strayed from the tea party cause and symbol of opposition to President Obama’s federal health insurance overhaul to protege of the GOP’s business-booster wing.
Her website describes her as a rising star and a leader in the House.
“I believe I have helped to lead,” she said in an interview. She pointed to her work last year on a House panel that proposed a GOP alternative to President Obama’s federal health insurance overhaul law. Republicans haven’t been able to agree whether to push ahead with the plan.
Ellmers, a 50-year-old registered nurse from Dunn, rode the tea party wave that shook up Congress in 2010 and upset seven-term Democratic congressman Bob Etheridge by less than 1 percentage point in the vote count.
Ellmers has been campaigning casually this spring as she faces a Republican primary challenge on May 6 from Frank Roche, a former foreign currency trader, college economics instructor and radio talk show. She’s attended county GOP meetings and last week launched a TV ad stressing her fight for conservative values, but she has skipped interview invitations that Roche has nabbed. Her campaign and congressional staff refused to detail Ellmers’ schedule beyond a culled sampling of events over four dates last month.
Ellmers has become a reliable vote for House Republican leaders, a stance which angered tea party firebrands when she opposed a government shutdown last fall in a high-stakes faceoff aimed at defunding Obama’s health insurance overhaul. That and other decisions on votes key to the American Conservative Union led to a fall in Ellmers’ rating from that group.
Roche unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for a congressional seat in the Raleigh area in 2010 and the party’s backing for state treasurer in 2012. He’s raised just $17,551, all from individual contributions, in the first three months of this year, according to his federal campaign finance reports.
Roche host blames labor competition from illegal immigrants for restricting wages and job opportunities for native Americans, and that has helped him pick up some tea party support.
Ellmers said if there’s one thing she could accomplish in Washington, it would be resolving how to treat an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally and around whom many businesses have designed their destinies. Ellmers advocates a formula the GOP House leadership advanced in January, allow them to stay in the country if they paid a fine without qualifying for citizenship.
Ellmers raised $321,872 in the year’s first quarter, almost 80 percent of that from political action committees representing dermatologists, bankers, pharmaceutical companies and other interests. Ellmers said PACs are helping her campaign because they agree with her conservative principals and she works on a House commerce committee. She tied her support from business interests to jobs for her district.
“The money that I raise through the PACs are with industry and those are jobs. That’s who’s going to grow the economy. That is who will be helping to hire more into the future. If I receive the support from those industries, I’m helping every North Carolinian,” Ellmers said.