Republican U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers is mulling a bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, but has some obstacles to consider: a competitive primary field, attacks on her record and a so-far meager campaign war chest.
In the primary, Ellmers would face formidable challenges, especially if two top state lawmakers, state House Speaker Thom Tillis and state Senate President Phil Berger, decide to run.
Ellmers is calculating her options, but not talking about it publicly. Although she ran as a tea party-supported outsider and a long-shot in 2010, she soon aligned with the House Republican leadership.
She gained exposure and a seat on the important House Energy Committee. But she also got anger from the right.
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The Club for Growth, a powerful conservative political action group, for one, is attacking her. The anti-tax group criticizes Ellmers on its website for a string of votes, including one to increase the debt ceiling in 2011, which also included large spending cuts, and another for a broad funding bill to avoid a government shutdown, which included money for the president’s health care plan.
“We don’t like her,” said spokesman Barney Keller. “The Club for Growth PAC doesn’t support liberals like Renee Ellmers for Congress.”
That criticism is echoed on The Daily Haymaker, a conservative North Carolina blog by Brant Clifton. Meanwhile, Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, gives her a 63 percent approval rating on the seven votes it scored so far this year.
Other conservatives see her record differently. The American Conservative Union a 91 percent rating for 2012.
Ellmers shares positions on key issues with other Republican conservatives, including opposition to any new gun-control measures and a stance on immigration that emphasizes border security. She does not advocate a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
But even if Ellmers defends her conservative credentials successfully, she still would have to find a lot of supporters with fat wallets. In the first quarter of this year, she raised only $100,000.
“I think she’d be a great candidate, but I think she would have problems raising money,” said Marc Rotterman, a North Carolina Republican strategist, who said that a Senate race would cost a minimum of $8 million to $10 million.
Rotterman said that Ellmers would be a clear contrast with Hagan and appeal to what he called an important group of voters, women ages 35-45.
Hagan, elected in 2008, is viewed as one of several vulnerable Democratic senators seeking re-election next year. She raised $1.6 million for her campaign during the first three months of this year.
Ellmers was a long-shot candidate when she first ran for Congress less than three years ago, riding on tea party support as an alternative to out-of-touch Washington insiders. Once in Congress, she took some positions that supported the views of House leaders in the face of opposition from some on the right. In the 2012 primary, she faced three Republican challengers who argued that she’d become the insider.
After winning the primary, Ellmers had an easy race against Democrat Steve Wilkins. She vastly outspent him, and Republican redistricting gave her an advantage.
Now if Ellmers decides to get in the GOP primary and wins, she’d have to give up a safe seat in the House to run against Hagan.
“She’s established herself,” Rotterman said. “She’s well-liked by the leadership in Congress. She’s got plenty of time to run for anything she wants in the future. So I don’t think it’s critical that she runs this time.”
Ellmers and her staff declined requests for interviews.
“Congresswoman Ellmers is praying about it, discussing it with supporters and monitoring how things develop,” said Jessica Wood, an Ellmers spokeswoman in North Carolina who handles queries about the congresswoman’s political plans. “She expects to have a decision in June.”
Andy Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said that for now, the primary is shaping up to be competitive. If Ellmers gets in the race, her competitors’ main attack, he said, will be that “she wobbled when she went to Washington” and didn’t deliver on the type of change she promised.
Sal Russo, a Republican political consultant with the national Tea Party Express, said he’s met with about four possible primary candidates in the race in North Carolina, but not with Ellmers yet. He said the group was still talking to tea party members in the state and looking at candidates, but was not ready to back anyone.
Others Republicans weighing a Senate run, besides Tillis and Berger, include the Rev. Mark Harris, who campaigned for the same-sex marriage ban that voters passed last year, former Charlotte City Council member Lynn Wheeler and North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry.
Ellmers was voted into Congress in 2010 with tea party support by campaigning to shake up government. She later lined up with leaders of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, who at times end up at odds with the far right wing of their party.
Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina Democratic strategist, said it appeared that Ellmers still had credentials with the tea party, and so the criticism that she was too close to the GOP establishment might not hurt her too much in a primary.
“She has a lot of business community relationships as well,” Jackson said. “And naturally, being female in the primary race, especially when most of the candidates talking about running are males, can only be helpful to her.”
He said that should she run and survive the GOP primary, “would certainly be a serious candidate in November.”
Ben Ray, a spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said Ellmers may have gone too far with some of her positions in Washington for moderates in the state. He listed her vote for an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood, co-sponsorship of a bill that declares that human life begins with fertilization and effectively bans abortion, support in 2011 for a bill that would have eliminated all federal funding for abortions and her vote against the Democratic version of the Violence Against Women Act.
"With an uncertain primary ahead, Congresswoman Ellmers’ viability as a Senate candidate is yet to be seen,” Ray said.