North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District – Renee Ellmers (R)
Welcome to the first edition of the District Geography series. Here, we’re going to be looking at the competitive districts in North Carolina and also make predictions as to what might happen in the fall. We’re going to start by analyzing the congressional districts, then move on to the State Senate and State House districts. First up is the 2nd congressional district.
The 2nd district is based in Central North Carolina, but lacks a true regional identity and is more of a mishmash of various areas, including Sanford, the Fort Bragg-Fayetteville area, the crimson-red Greensboro exurbs, and the town of Cary. Heavily Democratic areas, like the city of Pittsboro and more diverse communities in Fayetteville, have been carved out and are part of the 4th district. The result? A district that is safe for most any Republican.
Presently, the district is held by Republican Renee Ellmers of Dunn, first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, defeating Bob Etheridge. Initially, Ellmers was given little chance of victory, but a “YouTube moment” for Etheridge changed all that, and she eked out a win in November with strong Tea Party support. The 2nd was made substantially more Republican in redistricting, and Ellmers easily prevailed over her Democratic challenger, Steve Wilkins, in 2012.
Since her first election, Ellmers has been a rather different Representative than the Tea Party had in mind, less of a bombthrower and more of an ally of the Republican leadership. Many on the far right thus consider her a traitor to the cause, and her recent support of comprehensive immigration reform has been a cause of considerable ire for them. Accordingly, the Tea Party has attempted to replace her with someone more ideologically pure. But their efforts have come up short: two strong potential opponents to Ellmers passed up on the race, and the only other Republican running is Frank Roche, who is less than an ideal challenger. A former talk show host, Roche has sought various elected offices in the past, always coming up short, a losing streak that is unlikely to change with the primary against Ellmers.
Roche’s big problem: money. He doesn’t have any. And while Ellmers isn’t the strongest fundraiser, a group supporting immigration reform has run ads touting her as tough on border security. This is perhaps an indication that Ellmers senses some danger. But unless Roche can raise a lot of money, and fast, Ellmers will prevail on May 6th, but her margin of victory will probably be underwhelming.
While the 2nd is ostensibly strongly Republican, Democrats have two strong contenders to choose from. The biggest name, of course, is Clay Aiken, the singer-songwriter who gained fame on American Idol and then as an activist. The other is Keith Crisco, former Secretary of Commerce under Bev Perdue. There hasn’t been any reputable public polling, so it’s anyone’s guess as to who will prevail in May. The Aiken campaign touted the results of a survey that had Crisco in third place in the primary, behind counselor Toni Morris, but this internal poll is to be viewed with skepticism.
The Aiken-Crisco primary sets up an interesting contrast, that is in some respects a battle of old vs. new. Crisco fits the profile of successful North Carolina Democrats of the past: business-friendly, moderate to conservative, from a rural area. Aiken, however, fits the profile of the new, hip, urban Democrat, and makes no secret of the fact that he’s gay. There is also a large age disparity: Aiken is 35, while Crisco is 70.
In the primary, Aiken is likely to do well in suburban Wake County, but it’s a question of how well he’ll perform among the more traditional Democrats living in the more rural parts of the district. Then there are the “Claymates” – Aiken fans who don’t generally turn out in primaries but might do so to support their idol. This will definitely be one to watch on May 6th.
To predict elections going forward, it’s wise to look at elections past. And the 2nd district’s record is one that is reliably Republican. Despite losing nationwide, Mitt Romney won here with 57% of the vote in 2012, so in normal circumstances a Republican should be favored. However, there are arguably some abnormal circumstances here which should make observers cautious about declaring Ellmers a shoo-in. First, Ellmers could have trouble generating support from the Tea Party base, which could leave her vulnerable to a conservative Democrat with strong crossover support, like Crisco, or a more liberal Democrat who can raise a lot of money and turn out a lot of nontraditional voters, like Aiken. But even in such a perfect storm scenario, the national tide is likely to carry her to victory. The same is true in the unlikely event that Frank Roche is nominated. Thus, while Republicans can’t be absolutely certain of winning here, they can take comfort from the district’s record and what appears to be a building Republican wave. Notably, this is the Democrats’ best chance of picking up a seat in the entire state, which goes to show how much of an advantage Republicans have with the current maps.
The bottom line: Ellmers has been one of the luckiest politicians in Washington. It’s possible her luck will someday run out, but in both the primary and the general she seems well-positioned. Still, Ellmers shouldn’t be too confident, as strange things can happen. In the 2nd district, they’ve happened before.
Rep. Renee Ellmers
Frank Roche, talk show host
Clay Aiken, celebrity and activist
Keith Crisco, businessman
Toni Morris, counselor
District Rating: Leans Republican
Renee Ellmers (R) – 55.9%
Steve Wilkins (D) – 41.4%
Democrat – 36.3%
Republican – 35.3%
Unaffiliated – 28.0%
White – 74.1%
Black – 17.7%
Other – 8.2%
Results in Other Elections