Two days ago, Jim Duncan of Chatham County announced he was running for Congress. It looks like he’ll give Renee Ellmers something many conservatives have wanted to give her for a long time – a serious primary challenge. A retired businessman and former chair of the Chatham County GOP, Duncan is going to be a force to be reckoned with. There are plenty of folks in the Tea Party/grassroots/Daily Haymaker wing of the party who have had it with Ellmers, and her missteps over the late-term abortion bill last January have given them a lot of ammunition.
Still, it’s a bit early for Tea Party people to be celebrating. Ellmers, who represents the 2nd congressional district in the central part of the state, will be hard to beat for one reason alone: money. She has access to it, and she proved her fundraising chops last cycle after years of being one of the party’s most lackluster money-raisers. Duncan’s ability to finance a strong campaign, however, is something of a question mark. That could be decisive in a district which cuts into the state’s most expensive media market – the Triangle.
The Ellmers strategy is simple. If Duncan proves to be a serious foe (and even if he doesn’t) she’ll swamp the airwaves with ads touting herself as a conservative who is pro-life and has fought against the growing national debt. In fact, a third party group has already done that, well over a year before any primary. It’s the same strategy Ellmers used last cycle against her then-opponent, economist Frank Roche. Sure, Ellmers had angered a lot of conservatives, but without the resources to air these concerns to a wider audience, Roche’s campaign never got legs.
Unlike many GOP incumbents who have gone down to more conservative members of their party, Ellmers isn’t going to be caught off-guard by a strong challenge. Her campaign team is taking Duncan very seriously and knows they’re in for a tough fight. Perhaps the best thing they could hope for is the entrance of a third contestant. If that’s the case, then Ellmers can squeak out a victory with just over 40% of the vote next May, avoiding a perilous runoff.
During the campaign, she’ll have to learn from the mistakes of past GOP incumbents who got run over by the Right – in particular Eric Cantor, the GOP House Minority Leader who lost in a stunning upset last June. Cantor took his opponent, Dave Brat, very seriously and set out to crush him with negative attack ads. Instead, voters were turned off. He would probably have been better off stressing his conservative credentials rather than going after his opponent.
To win next May, Ellmers is going to have to convince conservatives that she’s one of them. Can she do so?
John Wynne is the “conservative voice” at PoliticsNC, where he also provides polling analysis and commentary on legislative campaigns. When not writing about politics, he enjoys gardening and listening to opera. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.