FILE - Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C. Harry Hamburg AP
FILE - Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C. Harry Hamburg AP

Under the Dome

Your inside source on North Carolina politics and government

Under the Dome

U.S. Rep. George Holding plans to challenge Rep. Renee Ellmers under new map

By Colin Campbell

and Anna Douglas

ccampbell@newsobserver.com

adouglas@mcclatchydc.com

February 19, 2016 02:56 PM

RALEIGH

Republican U.S. Rep. George Holding of Raleigh – whose 13th District moves far to the west under new district maps approved Friday – plans now to run in the 2nd Congressional District against fellow Republican Renee Ellmers, his campaign consultant said Friday.

The announcement came hours before Chief Justice John Roberts said he would not grant the state’s request to halt a federal court panel’s ruling declaring North Carolina’s 1st and 13th districts to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The Feb. 6 ruling gave the legislature until Friday to redraw the districts. The full court has not weighed in on a challenge to the panel’s ruling on its merits and Roberts’ order issued late Friday only weighed whether to halt the effect of the panel’s ruling until a full hearing can be held.

In attempting to comply with the panel’s order the legislature altered the 1st and 12th district, but also significantly changed other districts. A large chunk of Holding’s current district joins the new 2nd District. Holding’s home is in the 4th District in the new plan – about 6 miles outside the new 2nd District – but candidates aren’t legally required to live inside their district.

“Nobody’s too thrilled about the prospect of a primary, but that’s the democratic way,” said Carter Wrenn, who spoke Friday afternoon on behalf of the Holding campaign.

Holding couldn’t be reached because he’s in Europe with another member of Congress, Florida Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel. The two are meeting with government officials in Gibraltar, a British territory in the Mediterranean.

Reaction from the Ellmers campaign was strong.

“Frankly, to want power that bad ... (it’s) an extremely aggressive move,” said Patrick Sebastian, a spokesman for the Ellmers campaign.

It’s “unprecedented” for Holding to challenge an incumbent from his own party in her own district, he added.

Sebastian said the new congressional map presents “an unfortunate situation for everybody,” but he took issue with Holding’s choice to challenge Ellmers in her district. He also expressed concern that Holding, as of Friday afternoon, had not reached out to Ellmers about his decision.

Wrenn, talking about Holding’s decision, said that while the new district will be called the 2nd, most of the voters there are now in the 13th District represented by Holding. Holding has no ties to the new 13th District, which runs from western Greensboro to Statesville.

The plan left Holding with three realistic choices if he wanted to stay in the House: run in the new 13th where he’s unfamiliar to voters; challenge U.S. Rep. David Price in the heavily Democratic 4th; or challenge Ellmers in the 2nd.

Steven Greene, a political scientist at N.C. State, said it’s highly unusual for two incumbents from the same party to be lumped together in a map drawn by their own party.

“That’s absolutely the sort of thing you do to the other party,” Greene said. “What did Renee Ellmers or George Holding do to (anger) the state legislature? Could they really not come up with a different map that didn’t pit two Republican incumbents against each other?”

Asked about the situation Friday, Senate Redistricting Chairman Bob Rucho said the new district design was the result of specific goals set by legislators. Those included creating more compact districts while maintaining Republicans’ 10-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.

“That’s just the way the maps come out if you follow the criteria that we use,” he said. “I assume there will be a lot of (candidate) announcements if the Supreme Court does not stay the action of the three-judge panel.”

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But Wrenn says Holding will launch a 2nd District campaign soon if the court doesn’t act. Voters would choose among Holding, Ellmers and anyone else who decides to run in a special congressional primary set for June 7.

“If they don’t stay the order today, we just assume we’re going to be running in the 2nd District, roll up our sleeves, and go to work,” Wrenn said before Roberts’ order. “I think all we can do is go to work, assuming the current plan is going to be the election plan.”

Sebastian, speaking for Ellmers, said the 2nd is not “double-bunked” because Ellmers lives in that district but Holding lives in David Price’s 4th District under the new maps. For that reason, he said, Holding shouldn’t run in the 2nd District.

Ellmers has been reaching out to voters and elected officials who would now be in the 2nd District under the changes, Sebastian said. Part of the new district also includes towns that were part of Ellmers’ district in 2010, when she first ran for Congress and unseated longtime Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge.

Voters in the new 2nd, Sebastian said, remember that upset and see Ellmers as a “dragon slayer.”

Her campaign, he said, is committed to running hard in the old 2nd District as well as the new. Sebastian said no state officials or lawmakers had reached out to Ellmers’ campaign or congressional offices about this month’s redistricting debate.

Wrenn says he thinks Holding has a more conservative voting record than Ellmers – something that would help in a GOP primary. The conservative Club For Growth has already spent money to attack Ellmers and support one of her primary opponents; it’s possible the group could back Holding.

Heritage Action for America, a conservative group that tracks how members of Congress vote on key Republican issues, scores Holding as one of North Carolina’s most conservative representatives. Heritage gives Holding an 89 percent conservative score and Ellmers 54 percent.

Another conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, ranks representatives on how they vote on spending and budget issues. Holding has a lifetime score of 86 percent with them, and Ellmers is at 73 percent.

“George has not played politics, and done his job and voted a conservative line,” Wrenn said.

Holding also stands to benefit from the inclusion of Smithfield, Clayton and northern Johnston County in the new 2nd – areas that have been in Rep. David Rouzer’s 7th District. The Holding family founded First Citizens Bank in Smithfield.

“The Holding family all came from Smithfield,” Wrenn said. “They do have pretty deep roots.”

Regardless of who has the advantage, expect the new 2nd District to be blanketed with ads between March and June. “It’s going to be two well-funded campaigns,” Greene said.

And with no other races on the ballot, low voter turnout could impact the tone of the race. “You’re going to get the most conservative Republicans, and that’s going to pull all the candidates to the right,” Greene said.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

Legislators could run for Congress

Several state legislators said this week that they might run for one of two drastically changed congressional districts where the incumbent lives elsewhere.

The new 13th District – which U.S. Rep. George Holding plans to abandon to run in the 2nd – would span from Statesville to Greensboro. The boundaries include much of Andrew Brock’s state Senate district.

Brock, a Mocksville Republican, said he’s mulling a run for the seat. He said Friday that his phone has been ringing off the hook with people either encouraging him to run or saying they won’t run if he does.

Rep. Jon Hardister, a Greensboro Republican, said he might run, too. And Republican Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury didn’t rule out a run when asked Friday. He said he’s focused on the March 15 primary for his House seat.

“I think it’s a little premature for anybody to talk about a congressional run on plans that haven’t yet been approved,” Warren said. “I know several members have been discussing it as a possibility. They’re playing the game of ‘what would you do if you won the lottery.’ 

In the newly drawn 12th District in Mecklenburg County, three Democrats say they’re looking at challenging Rep. Alma Adams: Sen. Joel Ford, Rep. Rodney Moore and former Sen. Malcolm Graham.

The law scheduling the June 7 congressional primary gives elected officials a risk-free run in the late primary: They can run in both the March and June primaries simultaneously as long as they withdraw from one race shortly after June 7. So if they lose the congressional primary, they could still run to keep their legislative seat in November.