By Billy Liggett
Her campaign headquarters is an unfurnished, sparsely decorated brick home just blocks from downtown Dunn. Her office is dimly lit, mostly bare and features a photo of her standing with Elizabeth Dole and Laura Bush.And on this particular day, she's dressed in jeans and a casual shirt, arriving to work for another day of campaigning and meeting voters.
There's little about Renee Ellmers that screams "politician," and she prefers it that way.
But the wife, mother and former president-elect of her town's chamber of commerce is gaining political steam and has local Republicans optimistic that she's the best chance they've ever had to unseat Democrat Bob Etheridge in the race for the 2nd District of the U.S. House of Representatives this November.
The Herald sat down with Ellmers Monday for a 30-minute interview about her sudden rise in the GOP ranks, her chances for a November win and a certain YouTube video from her opponent that put her name in the national press.
SH: You go from the medical field (clinical director of her husband's practice in Dunn) to politics this year. What led you to make that leap?
Ellmers: Well, you know the health care has just been paramount. When President Obama was elected, he said things like "we're five days away from fundamentally changing our country. I had a feeling I knew what he was talking about. I thought it was a transformation that our country has never seen before, and I became very concerned.
So rather than sit at home yelling at the TV set, which I did, I decided I needed to get involved. And that's when I started going to some of the Harnett County Republican meetings.
Prior to that, I'd always been conservative. I've been a Republican as long as I can remember, though I'd never been active in the party.
The health care issue is a two-fold issue for me and my husband, because we're small business owners, and it hits us from a small business standpoint. But it also hits us from the medical side of it, which we knew would be devastating to the company and devastating to medicine here in our country -- moving toward a more socialistic style of health care. And we've already seen some of the changes that are coming out that are not good.
That's what got us on the road to this. As long as I've been here, Congressman Etheridge has been our representative, and over the last year, he's proven that he's not representing the people of District 2. He votes 97 percent of the time with Barack Obama, and he gets his marching orders from Nancy Pelosi. That's very different from who the people of District 2 are. I know for a fact that so many people in District 2 called out to him to please not vote for the health care bill, and I really do believe that's what has hurt him the most.
SH: Despite the lack of name recognition district wide, you did very well in the primary -- there wasn't even a runoff -- to what do you attribute that success?
RE: The two gentlemen I was running against were very similar to me in that none of us had any political experience. So, I think we were all very even that way. I think people were just able to identify with my message the best.
SH: So you win, and shortly thereafter, and your opponent, Bob Etheridge, kind of hands you a gift in the form of a YouTube video where he confronts a few students in Washington, D.C., which propelled you nationally. What has that done to your campaign? How do you use that to your benefit, and how do you avoid overusing it?
RE: That's the thing it gave us a national exposure that we would not have had. I had done many interviews in and around that video coming out on the national level. But here locally the people here in District 2 viewed it as devastating -- this is the person in Washington representing us. This is not the person we've seen in our district. Typically, when Congressman Etheridge is here, he presents himself as a very conservative Democrat who's very concerned about fiscal issues. And he presents himself as just a "good ole boy" just one of us.
Yet, when he goes to Washington, he becomes this completely different person who votes right in line with the liberals, basically, and follows the party line. So I think that video was a real eye-opener for many in the district. And I really felt very strongly that I did not want to jump on and take advantage of this man's mistake.
I do believe that he has some explaining to do about it. He did apologize publicly, although I'm not sure whom he was apologizing to. Other than that, he's been very silent on it.
The video and all that followed were a perfect illustration of the areas of power that exist in Washington right now. The "how dare you ask me a question about why I'm doing what I'm doing." The fact of the matter is the question was a very simple question. It also showed us that there's a toxicity that exists for those who've followed along with the Obama agenda, and that might present its own difficulties for them.
SH: So you get the national recognition and even more local recognition. How have you been able to turn it into a positive for your campaign?
RE: What we've tried to do as far as our message goes is to get people in District 2 to understand that when Bob is here, he's one person. We call him N.C. Bob. When he goes to Washington, he becomes D.C. Bob. So he's very conservative here, and he's very liberal in Washington.
SH: You received an endorsement from Sarah Palin recently. What does that mean to your campaign, and have you spoken with her personally?
RE: I have not spoken with her personally. My campaign and her PAC have basically been handling communications back and forth.
I was very much hoping to receive Sarah Palin's endorsement, because I feel we have so much in common from the standpoint that we're both moms, we're both very concerned with where our country is going in relation to our children's future not just our children, but all children. We're both independent thinkers who want to do the right thing and turn this country back on the road to prosperity. We were very happy to get the endorsement, and it meant a lot to me.
SH: Etheridge criticized the endorsement, which led to a back-and-forth between the two of you where you challenged him to a debate?
RE: His remark was essentially that I'll be taking my marching orders from Sarah Palin. I think where they were trying to call me an extremist or a radical, and my thought on it is OK, we're moms, we're concerned about our children's futures that's extremist and radical? I'm not sure where that comes from.
And I was also amazed because he clearly takes his marching orders from Nancy Pelosi. The majority of his contributions, at least from the last quarter of FEC filing, has been from unions and special interests. So he clearly takes marching orders.
I, on the other hand, my marching orders are going to come from the people of District 2. I'm going to do what they want me to do, and I believe we are like-minded in our conservative views.
SH: What specifically would you like to debate Etheridge on now?
RE: I'd like to talk about jobs and the stimulus package that he voted for all the things he's voted for in the past year, which he's claimed will bring us jobs. It has not done a thing the only jobs that have been created from that stimulus package are government jobs. There have been no private sector jobs created, and our economy is in jeopardy and has not moved forward.
We're ready to debate him about the jobs issue any time.
SH: Bob Etheridge has won his last two elections against Republican Dan Mansell by hefty margins. Why do you feel like this year can be different for the GOP?
RE: There was a poll done shortly after the video came out which actually had us about even. But the internals of the poll indicated that there was much dissatisfaction with the job Bob Etheridge was doing. And Mr. Mansell did win with about 33-35 percent of the vote by getting the Republican vote.
I think the difference with this election is that I'm not only going to get the Republican vote, but I believe I'm going to get the majority of the independents and a good margin of the Democrats. I've spoken with many independents and Democrats lately, and I've met with some Democrats who've told me they've always voted for Bob Etheridge and that they are not voting for him this time. And they told him they would not vote for him if he voted for the health care bill. And they've pledged their vote to me.
District 2 is full of good hard-working conservative people. Many have told me that (Bob Etheridge) has sold us out, and he has turned his back on us. And when you have people feeling that their representative -- and I believe whole-heartedly that he does not represent -- is not representing you, it is your responsibility to vote him out.
SH: You and Bob are both stationed in Harnett County, but Lee County is an important part of the district. What are some of the issues you feel are unique to Lee County and what efforts have you made to meet with the voters here?
RE: I've made it into Lee County a few times recently. I met with a group of home school moms recently. I think education is a big issue in Lee County, and I feel like state and local governments should have more say in education with less say at the federal level.
Of course, manufacturing and agriculture are big there. The people I've talked to in Lee County are very much concerned about the same issues I'm seeing across the district, which are the loss of jobs, the inability for businesses to be creating jobs. Businesses are very worried their doors are going to close with all the uncertainties that face us -- the possibility of tax increases, the Bush tax cuts sundowning, the health care costs and taxation and increase in health care costs with the bill that was passed.
Businesses are very concerned in Lee County and across District 2.
National security is a big issue for people in Lee County with the number of military personnel who are there. I'm a big supporter of our military, and I believe we should do all we can to strengthen our military.