By Elise Viebeck - 06/13/11 10:00 AM EDT
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) is one of seven nurses in Congress, and among the more than 30 freshmen who had never held office before January.
Hers is a classic 2010 story.
With an endorsement from Sarah Palin but no support from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), she beat longtime Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge in a campaign that garnered national attention for an NRCC-tracker fracas, an ad against the so-called Ground Zero mosque and, in the end, a recount.
It was also, a sharp rise to office for someone who started attending local GOP meetings less than two years ago.
“As a nurse, caring for and treating patients is a daily priority,” she said. “Now as a congresswoman, I’ve been able to apply these skills by diagnosing the diseases in our government and working towards a cure.”
Etheridge, who was born in nearby Sampson County, had held the seat since 1996.
He conceded on Nov. 19, after losing the recount by about 1,500 votes, and having spent $1.5 million, compared to Ellmers’s $648,000 for the whole cycle.
Ellmers highlighted her family’s healthcare experience — her husband is a surgeon — when she toured the state in 2009 with Americans for Prosperity, a D.C.-based conservative group that opposes the healthcare reform law.
The law is “so riddled with provisions that violate right-to-life principles and support government rationing of care that it cannot simply be patched,” she said in January, on the House floor.
Though Ellmers said she’s “always been a conservative” — her father was a “Reagan independent” — she was motivated to get involved because she opposed Obama’s approach to healthcare. Her concerns, she said, drove her toward politics.
“I attended monthly Harnett County GOP meetings and became involved and tried to help and volunteer and do those things. But prior to that I hadn’t been involved,” she said.
Observers noted that, perhaps more than any 2010 campaign, Ellmers’s effectively battered the incumbent over healthcare.
But not all of the attention aroused by her campaign tactics was positive.
Ellmers gained notoriety in late September after her campaign released an ad comparing the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan with a “victory mosque” from the Middle Ages.
“The terrorists haven’t won, and we should tell them in plain English: No. There will never be a mosque at Ground Zero,” Ellmers said in the ad.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper remarked during a primetime interview with Ellmers that “the people who are building the mosque are not terrorists.”
She replied: “Do you know that, sir?”
Today, Ellmers stands by the ad. “I really don’t have any regrets about it. I’m glad we did it,” she said.
“I knew what the opposition discussion would be. It would be ‘she’s anti-Muslim.’ That certainly was not the intent. But by the same token we felt it was very important to do the ad. ... We said we would stand and never forget, and here we are.
“A mosque being built on ground that was basically outlying Ground Zero really to me was the wrong thing to do. I just felt very strongly about it then, and I still remain very strong on that.”
Throughout the cycle, Ellmers harkened back to the judgment of an NRCC spokesman who had reportedly said the campaign “wasn’t ready for prime time.”
The apparent dismissiveness of the Washington establishment — despite the presence of longtime operatives like Carter Wrenn, a veteran of the late GOP Sen. Jesse Helms’s campaigns in the 1970s and ‘80s — reverberated in the conservative blogosphere and helped spur nearly $400,000 in independent expenditures against Etheridge.
More controversy erupted when Etheridge was caught on video manhandling a questioner who was later revealed to be a Republican tracker.
Ellmers denied the man in the video was tied to her campaign. Although this was true, the revelation that he was affiliated with the NRCC caused her some political embarrassment — which in turn contributed to Ellmers’s tensions with the committee.
“That’s just a risky situation. We had come out and said that we had nothing to do with it, to find out later that my own party did,” she said.
When the NRCC refused another request for funds after Nov. 2, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said the committee was telling Ellmers to “go to hell.”
The committee eventually relented, giving $5,000 to Ellmers’s campaign and $5,000 to her recount effort. The Republican National Committee followed with $10,000 on Nov. 9.
Ellmers said that today, her relationship with national GOP leaders is “completely different” than it was seven months ago.
“Certainly we’ve discussed many times why they didn’t help me. ... But you know what? I’m a team player. I’m here; I wanted it even without their help,” she said.
Despite this difficult history, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) recently chose Ellmers, along with two other freshman members, as the faces for “YouCut,” his online tool that allows users to vote on spending cuts.
Ellmers says Cantor “in particular” has been her ally.
“I get along very well with leadership here in Washington,” she said.
Describing her rise, she laughed.
“Normally, when folks are on that path [to public office] they start off on ... a more local level of government, we’ll say.”