An Incumbent Scrum In North Carolina's 2nd U.S. District

Jun 6, 2016

Renee Ellmers, the incumbent in North Carolina's 2nd U.S. House District, faces off against George Holding, the sitting congressman from the 13th District.
Credit U.S. House of Representatives

Voters head to the polls Tuesday for North Carolina's second primary where they will decide congressional races and a swing seat on the state Supreme Court.

One of the more competitive contests is in parts of the Triangle where two familiar elected officials are battling for one seat. It's the only race of its kind in the country - and redistricting is to thank.

While incumbents rarely go down in politics, we know for certain that one sitting member of Congress will be ousted on June 7.

Two Incumbents, One Seat

Renee Ellmers is the incumbent in North Carolina's 2nd U.S. House District. And George Holding is the sitting congressman from the 13th District. Of the 435 members of the U.S. House, these are the only two squaring off in a primary.

Experts had already pegged Ellmers as vulnerable last fall, before federal judges ruled that two of the state's congressional boundaries were illegal, racial gerrymanders. State lawmakers then redrew the boundaries, and Holding was left out of his district.

Legally, candidates for the U.S. House don't have to live in the districts they serve. Since Holding lives only a few miles from the new 2nd District, proximity is one reason he chose to take on Ellmers. Another is her record, as Holding is among those who say she isn't conservative enough.

In a recent debate, he noted her position on illegal immigration: “We had an amendment to prioritize the deportation of sexual criminals who are illegal immigrants. Miss Ellmers was the only Republican to vote against that amendment."

Later in the forum, Ellmers responded: "Is that not what we are doing? Did we need to pass an amendment that would have gone nowhere outside of the House? Is a pedophile not a prioritized criminal to begin with?"

Along with voting for an Obama budget and working with former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Ellmers set off many hard-line conservatives when she helped to pull an anti-abortion bill in January of 2015. That measure would have banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Ellmers was first elected six years ago as a tea party-backed newcomer to Washington. Now, the Koch Brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity is running ads against her.

"Americans balance their budgets, work hard, Renee Ellmers promised to do the same, but she became part of the Washington problem," the ad says. "She promised spending limits, then voted against them. She voted against special interest deals, then voted for them."

Some of the most conservative groups are backing him. And while there are not many significant policy differences, the two are squabbling. Ellmers has criticized Holding for spending little time in the state and for all of his overseas trips, paid for with tax dollars.

"George has been on 12 expensive, lavish junkets in just more than three and a half years. I think that's more than most monarchs travel," Ellmers said.

Holding defended his position saying “if members of Congress want to know what is going on, do not trust the Obama administration or the Secretary of State to tell you what's going on.”

Holding is a former federal prosecutor who began the criminal investigation of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, who beat charges of campaign finance fraud.

During his two terms in Congress, Holding has built a strong conservative record, a fact that would surely make his former boss, the late Republican Senator Jesse Helms, proud.

New District Boundaries

The newly-drawn 2nd Congressional seat shifted north and east. It now includes all of Harnett, Franklin, and Nash counties along with parts of Wake, Johnston and Wilson counties. It's seen as conservative leaning, but less so than the previous seat.

"You know there are three types of races in politics: there are issue races, there are personality races, and there are...structural races which have to do with who comes out," explained David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College.

Not many are expected to cast ballots in this one - turnout will likely be in the low double digits. McLennan said this will be less about issues and more about persona.

"Do you want the more reserved George Holding, the former federal prosecutor and that kind of personality that is not necessarily going to overwhelm you with charisma?” McLennan said. “Or do you want a Renee Ellmers who has a little more charisma who has been in Washington slightly longer, who’s been connected with house leadership over the years?"

In the days leading up to this race, Holding's camp says he had a 28 point lead. Ellmer's camp calls that a convenient talking point. They say this is a close race, and she's up in some polls.

A third candidate, Greg Brannon, is also in the battle for the 2nd District. The obstetrician has lost two previous bids for elected office. Brannon owes nearly $175,000 in taxes, which he blames on Obamacare, and a jury ruled that he misled investors to the tune of $250,000. It's unclear just how Brannon factors into this race or if he could swing the outcome.