The right's most-hated RINO: Why Rep. Renee Ellmers' career is so telling

GOP House member faces conservative fire for ruining their anti-abortion plans. But the story starts years before

Published January 23, 2015 4:02PM (EST)

Renee Ellmers     (AP/Sara D. Davis)
Renee Ellmers (AP/Sara D. Davis)

The most hated RINO in conservative circles this week is third-term Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina. Ellmers and Rep. Jackie Walorski sparked an intra-party revolt among "moderates" over language in the GOP's "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" when they withdrew their co-sponsorships earlier this week. The leadership had to pull the vote Wednesday night. Instead of banking its perfunctory anti-abortion messaging points as it does at the start (and middle and end) of each Congress, the party instead found itself defending itself on two fronts: from pro-life activists, on the very day that held their big annual protest in Washington, on one side, and from charges of insensitivity to rape victims on the other. A day in the life.

And as with any other day, instead of introspection or consideration of her arguments, it was much easier for conservatives to just blame the whole mess on Ellmers for opening her mouth. "Renee Ellmers is Worse Than a Democrat," RedState's Leon Wolf wrote. Who knew there was a station even lower than "Democrat"? Worse yet from Wolf was this: "Renee Ellmers is Wendy Davis with Less Panache." Wolf's RedState colleague Erick Erickson, meanwhile, tweeted "I'm sorry Clay Aiken lost," referring to Ellmers' celebrity general election opponent in 2014. "In fact," The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway wrote, "even Democrats who think late-term abortion should be legal with no restrictions didn’t make an issue of the reporting requirement in the last two elections.... But now Ellmers created a controversy where non existed, hereby handing Democrats a way to fight a broadly popular bill." In other words, blame Renee Ellmers for tipping off Democrats to the rape reporting requirement; don't blame the inclusion of the rape reporting requirement in the first place.

Ellmers makes for an easy target: this isn't her first dabbling with RINO treachery. She's had one of the more interesting arcs of the new GOP members who were swept in during the 2010 Tea Party wave -- in that there's been any arc at all. When these new, hot-tempered members came to Congress, the leadership and lobbyists and most "establishment" types hoped to convert them. As lobbyist and former Senate majority leader Trent Lott put it in 2010, "As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them." Now, two Congress later, let's just say that the co-opting is... incomplete. Renee Ellmers is one of the few on whom it's occasionally worked.

Ellmers barely won her seat in 2010, when she defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridege in a recount. Etheridge might have been able to cling on were it not for an incident that summer when he was captured on video grabbing a student who'd asked him an uncomfortable question.

Ellmers was able to take the seat after a typically insane 2010 Republican campaign. She railed about how the Affordable Care Act would be the end of global civilization and won Sarah Palin's endorsement. If you've forgotten just how crazy the 2010 election season was, refresh yourself with a viewing of this Ellmers ad from the height of the "Ground" "Zero" "Mosque" controversy:

"When she narrowly pulled off the victory," Leon Wolf writes, "people expected great things from her." How could you not, after an ad like that? "However, since her election, she has been one of the worst members of the GOP caucus."

Like all other Evil RINOs, this means she has done two or three things that conservative activists haven't liked over the course of several years, while otherwise being extraordinarily conservative by any historical standard. She aligned herself with the leadership early on and has adhered to, rather than sought to blow up for blowin'-up's sake, its strategies on high-profile, must-pass legislative items. She's also voiced support for a pathway to citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration reform -- and not kept quiet about it, either. She confronted Laura Ingraham about the host's "ignorant" positions on Ingraham's radio show.

Ellmers' immigration position earned her a primary challenger in 2014. She dispatched her opponent, Frank Roche, 59 to 41 percent. But 41 percent wasn't half-bad for a no-name opponent who only spent about $50,000.

Add this abortion apostasy to her previous troubles with conservatives, and she's sure to get another primary challenge in 2016 -- presumably a better organized one, too.

Ellmers is one of the few Tea Party wave members who turned out the way Republicans like Lott expected they all would: sure, you can get elected in a wave year saying all sorts of nonsense, but then you get to Washington and learn a few things and have to win reelection in a less favorable electorate.

The reason that so many of these Tea Party members never changed their ways is in part due to the specific cycle that brought them in: a redistricting cycle. Their state legislatures redrew their districts into redder-than-red territories that ensured they would never, ever face those "less favorable electorates" -- at least in general elections. Their only threats are in primaries now. Ellmers' district was redrawn to be more conservative, too, but she's been one of the few to go in the other direction. It may be her undoing.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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