Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina on Tuesday became the first House Republican to lose a primary in 2016, falling to fellow Rep. George Holding in this cycle’s only member-vs.-member race.
Holding won with 53 percent, followed by Ellmers with 24 percent, and Greg Brannon, who lost the Senate primary in March, with 23 percent. The win in the solidly Republican, central North Carolina district all but assures Holding a return trip to Congress next year.
Despite receiving a late endorsement from presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, Ellmers headed into Tuesday’s race as an underdog. Top conservative groups including the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity poured more than $1 million into the district to oppose her, and Holding significantly outspent and outraised her in the weeks leading up to the race.
Only one other incumbent, Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, has lost renomination so far this cycle. In 2014, four House incumbents were defeated in primaries, including then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
House primaries between two members of Congress usually pop up after redistricting every decade. But earlier this year, a court struck down North Carolina’s House map, forcing a redraw of its district boundaries and moving back its House primaries from March 15.
Geography, as it often does in post-redistricting races, played a significant role in the outcome. Portions of Ellmers’s and Holding’s old districts were merged into one, with Holding having represented far more of the new territory.
From the outset, the race between Ellmers and Holding took on a bitter and negative tone. Ellmers was swept into office in the 2010 tea-party wave, while Holding was elected after a tough primary in 2012.
“I am his senior member in the delegation, and he’s running against me,” Ellmers told National Journal in February.
For weeks, conservative groups battered Ellmers on the airwaves, accusing her of joining the GOP establishment that she had vowed to fight against. They criticized her on a host of issues, including her support for the omnibus spending bill. Antiabortion groups also hammered Ellmers, citing her role last year in derailing a 20-week abortion ban.
Ellmers got a boost over the weekend from Trump, who gave her his first congressional endorsement this cycle and recorded a robocall on her behalf. She was the first female member of Congress to back the billionaire businessman.
But Trump’s stamp of approval ultimately wasn’t enough to lift Ellmers, who had raised $27,000 to Holding’s $294,000 from April 1 to May 18. Holding shelled out $670,000 over that time, while Ellmers spent $275,000. Brannon spent just $70,000.
North Carolina Democrats and Republicans expected potentially record-low turnout in the primaries, given the confusion surrounding this year’s elections. In an interview last month, Holding predicted that dynamic could favor him, but also sounded unsure.
“Lower turnout means you probably got more dedicated primary voters,” Holding said. “The more dedicated primary voters tend to be more conservative, so I’m on the more conservative end of the spectrum and so maybe it favors me. I don’t know.”
Later Tuesday night, Rep. Robert Pittenger appeared to narrowly avoid becoming the second North Carolina Republican to lose.
Pittenger led by fewer than 200 votes over Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor who ran third in the 2014 Senate primary and had criticized Pittenger for an FBI investigation into his old real-estate company. Former Union County Commissioner Todd Johnson ran a close third.
All three candidates were below 40 percent, but the state temporarily eliminated runoffs this cycle to account for the delayed primaries.
In an interview last month, Pittenger said he was concerned about the impact of low turnout, saying it could allow single-issue voters to have an outsize impact, and about the confusion over the revised date for the House primaries. He said he was aggressively campaigning, knocking on doors every weekend and often meeting voters who believed they already voted for him in March.
“It’s off their radar screen,” Pittenger told National Journal. “Because of what the judges did, they’ve disenfranchised the voters. The voters think they already voted. That’s not right.”
Rep. Walter Jones, who faced a Republican primary rematch in the 3rd District from political consultant Taylor Griffin, won easily with 65 percent of the vote. Democratic Rep. Alma Adams had a repeat opponent as well, along with a drastically redrawn district, but won with 42 percent of the vote in the Charlotte-based 12th District.
Ally Mutnick contributed