By Paul Woolverton
Two years after Republican Renee Ellmers rode the tea party movement to defeat longtime Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge in the 2nd District, she finds herself assailed by five opponents.
Two Democrats and three Republicans want to boot Ellmers, a nurse from Dunn, from the seat she won by a 0.8 percent margin in 2010. According to political scientists, she's at the point when an incumbent can be most vulnerable: her first attempt to get re-elected.
Ellmers' Democratic challengers say she's disconnected from the district and doesn't represent its values.
The Republican challengers also accuse Ellmers of being disconnected, and of breaking promises, betraying the people who elected her and getting too cozy with Republican elite in Washington. She's been criticized by conservatives on talk radio and right-wing blogs.
Ellmers disputes the accusations.
"I am the most conservative Republican on the North Carolina delegation, as pointed out by the National Journal," Ellmers said. "I'm in the top 15 percent of conservatives in the House of Representatives, and I would like to know what those promises are that I 'broke.' "
Her campaign said her congressional office has responded to more than 100,000 constituent queries and has one of the best response times in Congress.
In addition to soothing ruffled Republican feathers, Ellmers must get to know a redrawn district largely new to her. Republicans at the state legislature last year redesigned the district to make it solidly favor GOP candidates. But they also gave her a large amount of new territory.
The district runs east to west from Dunn to High Point, and north to south from Cary and Siler City, Fayetteville and Raeford.
Ellmers has the advantages of incumbency, support from prominent Republicans such as George Little in Moore County, and a lot more money.
According to filings at the Federal Election Commission, Ellmers has spent $522,000 this election cycle as of March 31, and had $315,000 in the bank.
Her closest rival financially, Republican Richard Speer of Fayetteville, had spent $13,700 and had $505 left as of March 31. He said he has since raised more money and is buying radio advertising.
Speer and fellow Republicans Clement F. Munno and Sonya Holmes are challenging Ellmers.
Democrats Toni Morris and Steve Wilkins want to take on the Republican winner in November. Another Democrat's name will appear on the ballot, but the candidate, Jim Bibbs of Pittsboro, dropped out of the race in March.
Renee Ellmers defeated 14-year incumbent Bob Etheridge in a campaign buoyed by national attention and an influx of donations after video emerged of Etheridge in a confrontation with two young men on a Washington street.
Once in office, Ellmers said, she worked to cut spending, shrink government and balance the budget. She said she strove for tax reform and energy independence, and voted to repeal President Obama's controversial health care reform law so she could advance meaningful reform.
But she has drawn criticism from some tea party activists and Republican opponents who don't like that she voted last summer to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
They argue that only a year after running as a grassroots candidate, she became connected to Republican House Speaker John Boehner in politics and public appearances.
"Right now she's bought into the concept of being 'one of the team,' " Munno said. "She's not supposed to represent Boehner or anybody else up there. She's supposed to represent the people that she's representing in this district. She hasn't carried our message."
Her critics are wrong, Ellmers said.
"I never said that I was not going to vote for the debt ceiling, but that I would consider all the issues," Ellmers said. "And if I did vote for the debt ceiling, it was going to have to come with significant spending cuts - which is exactly what we did - and a vote on the balanced-budget amendment."
Ellmers said she has goals to reduce taxes and create jobs. This month, for example, she voted for a bill that would cut corporate income taxes on businesses by 20 percent.
If re-elected, she wants to end a tax on medical devices, reduce regulations on small businesses and put more tax reform in place.
"We've just got to do everything we can to help our small-business owners," she said.
Republican Sonya Holmes of the Broadway area of Harnett County is a 48-year-old poultry farmer who voted for Ellmers in 2010, she said, and ended up disappointed.
"I decided to run because I no longer trust those who have been elected to office to fulfill their campaign promises," Holmes said.
Holmes doesn't like that Ellmers voted to increase the debt ceiling and that she voted for legislation that will permit the government to detain Americans indefinitely without a warrant.
Describing herself as a constitutional conservative, Holmes finds such policies and other decisions in Washington appalling.
"I have three grandchildren, and I want them to be able to live in a free America, and I'm afraid if something's not done with this election, that won't be an option."
Holmes wants to improve the economy - her family has suffered with the local decline in the poultry industry - protect personal liberties, reduce regulation and keep the government restricted to limits imposed by the constitution.
Holmes, along with Speer and Morris, doesn't live in the 2nd District. No law or constitutional provision requires a congressman to live in the district he or she serves.
Still, their out-of-district homes make them the targets of criticism from opponents.
"If you can't even vote for yourself, I think that's a significant issue," Ellmers said of Holmes and the other out-of-district candidates. "If you don't live within the district, then you are not fully understanding the issues that are created and need to be addressed within your district."
Holmes said her address is not an issue. "I am in the 2nd District until the new lines are recognized after the elections. I was asked by the constituents in the 2nd District to run for this office. They believe they are not being represented properly. Once elected, I will be there to help anyone that needs my help regardless of their address."
Republican Clement Munno, 69, is a retired businessman from Aberdeen.
After serving in the Army in the 1960s, Munno said, he worked for the federal government and later became a Washington-area consultant who was a troubleshooter for government agencies.
He said he helped them ensure that contractors lived up to their requirements. The experience will make him an effective congressman seeking to cut costs, he said.
"I know a lot about the government. I know where the soft spots are. I know where we can cut things without affecting a thing," Munno said.
The government has too many redundant services and at times is too chummy with expensive contractors, he said.
His other priorities include eliminating corporate income taxes and replacing the nation's complicated tax code with something simple, with few tax deductions. The changes would improve the business climate and create jobs, he said.
Further, Munno said, the country needs a balanced-budget amendment and a cap on the debt ceiling.
Munno said if elected, he plans to serve no more than two terms.
Republican Richard Speer, 54, of Fayetteville is a retired Special Forces soldier who now is a nuclear security expert for Progress Energy. He said he supported Ellmers but was disappointed.
"While it is true that she's made a lot of votes along the line that she said, they were votes on bills that had absolutely no chance whatsoever in going anywhere," Speer said.
"And when she had opportunities to vote on bills that would actually accomplish those objectives in the near term, she bowed to the political pressure of the party."
He didn't like her votes for a budget resolution and on the debt ceiling.
"I'm tired of backing folks that say one thing and are doing something else," Speer said.
Speer wants to reduce the size of the government, enact policies to encourage job growth and pursue ways to eliminate the nation's dependency on foreign energy.
Although opponents question his candidacy because he lives outside the district, he said it's unimportant. Speer said he could have run in the 4th District, where he lives, but he didn't want to run against a friend, Republican Tim D'Annunzio.
The long-term district boundaries are uncertain, Speer said, because of ongoing litigation.
Regardless, he said, he has lived in the 2nd District and now is only a quarter-mile from its border. "I'm virtually across the street from it," Speer said. " You can say, 'He's not in the district.' OK, pick up a rock."
Toni Morris of Fayetteville and Steve Wilkins of Whispering Pines have the challenge of trying to defeat a Republican in a Republican-favoring district.
In 2008, voters in the district picked Republican John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama for president, 56 percent to 43 percent, and Republicans won most other statewide ballots in the district.
Despite the history, Morris and Wilkins both said they have what it takes to win.
"It's not a strong Republican-leaning district," Wilkins said. "The district favors whoever can win over independent voters, that's the bottom line here."
No party has a majority of the district; unaffiliated voters make up nearly 26 percent of voters.
Morris, a 47-year-old counselor, has lived in and out of Fayetteville since she was a child. Her father was in the Army, and her husband was in the Air Force and retired here in 2003.
This is her first run for office.
"I decided to run after looking at what was going on in Congress and looking at how our representative was aligning with an agenda instead of representing the people in our district," she said.
Morris feels that Ellmers and the Republicans have been supporting the wealthy more than ordinary Americans, she said.
If elected, Morris said, she would work to give teachers better tools and support so their students will grow up better educated and able to get good jobs.
Congress also needs to provide the means for the economy to create more jobs and bring jobs back from overseas, Morris said, and support small businesses.
Morris' residency draws criticism from her Democratic opponent, who said voters tell him it's important for their lawmaker to live within the boundaries.
Morris said that until this election cycle, she has lived in the 2nd District. She also says court challenges could put her back in the district.
"As an original member of the 2nd District, I felt it was necessary that the 2nd District still have representation from somebody who has lived in the 2nd District," she said.
Wilkins, 52, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Special Forces. He lives near Whispering Pines and works in business development for defense contractor Boeing, which has an office in Fayetteville.
While in the Army, he was an elected member of the on-post school board at Fort Campbell, Ky. After retiring here, he served the BRAC Regional Task Force, an organization set up to help the communities around Fort Bragg prepare for the Army's transfer of two major headquarters and thousands of personnel to the area.
"We need to leadership in the Congress because service, accountability and courage are lacking right now," Wilkins said.
He feels a calling to public service, reflected by his military career and other community service.
Wilkins said his service overseas, service in the military's Transportation Command and as a liaison to Congress while in the Army, provide the perspective, leadership skills and experience needed to be an effective congressman.
Wilkins wants to help the economy, improve education, balance the federal budget, ease small business regulations and see Congress re-assert itself to balance its power with the president's.
Although the president needs the ability to quickly deploy the military in emergencies, Wilkins said, "Congress has abdicated their role in war-making in the last 20 or 25 years. It's pretty much been all ceded over to the executive authority."
Foreign conflicts have become too opened-ended and with too little congressional oversight, he said. This runs contrary to the intentions of the founding fathers, he said, and is wearing down the military.