Like many representatives in 2010, Bob Etheridge is an erstwhile safe Democrat who hasn’t faced serious competition in the past. A seven-term congressman from Raleigh’s southern and eastern suburbs and farm country, Etheridge is a former tobacco farmer and state legislator with moderate social views and New Deal rural politics. It's seemingly a perfect fit for a Southern district not quite ready to cast its lot with the GOP.
But the Second Congressional District could be outgrowing its native son. Republican challenger Renee Ellmers, a Michigan native who moved to the North Carolina with her husband and children, appeals more to the state’s service and technology future than its tobacco farming past.
But that's how the race might have been played, had it not been for an incident involving Etheridge that went viral on the Internet, causing the long-term congressman to gain more notoriety than he had previously for any legislative accomplishments. Recorded last June by two conservative students, the video
, which now has nearly three million views on YouTube, shows Etheridge grabbing one of the students, first by the wrist and then around his arms, as the students asked the congressman if he supports the “Obama agenda.” When the video went viral, folks around the country began to ask who was facing this seemingly out of touch representative of the people.
“I hardly go a day where someone doesn’t bring up that video,” says Ellmers in a phone interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD. The national interest in the story raised her profile, with Ellmers now touting endorsements from Sarah Palin and the National Right to Life.
Nevertheless, Ellmers is still a long shot to win. Etheridge beat his 2008 Republican opponent by 36 percentage points and hasn’t received less than 60 percent of the vote since 2000. Obama won there by six percentage points, and Ellmers admits there are more Democrats than Republicans in the district. The largely rural district, in the heart of Tobacco Road, has seemingly been well served by Etheridge’s support of small farm subsidies and his moderate image. But Ellmers insists that he's no conservative.
“He keeps playing this game that he’s one of us, that he’s a conservative,” she says. “He doesn’t vote [that way].”
And she’s right. According to the National Journal ratings, Etheridge has become increasingly liberal in his voting record since 2007, when he had a moderate-to-liberal record. Since then, Etheridge voted for the 2009 stimulus bill, cap-and-trade, and health care reform -- the trifecta of liberal policy agenda items that many Democrats are now running from in 2010. Ellmers is against the stimulus and says its reception in her district is “not favorable.”
“Only three percent of stimulus money has been spent” in the district, she says. “People are upset those signs are up.”
Ellmers says the biggest issues, as it is most everywhere around the country, are the bad economy and poor job prospects. Her solution is decidedly less Keynesian than Etheridge’s pro-fiscal stimulus positions. “I want to see tax cuts across the board,” Ellmers says. “I think we should extend the [Bush] tax cuts.”
But if the district has soured on the overall Obama agenda, it was the health care reform vote that Ellmers believes has soured voters on Etheridge himself. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she says.
In fact, it was during the health care reform debate when Ellmers first got serious about politics in her district. She’s a registered nurse, and her husband is a surgeon. “We’re not on board with this,” she says. “I do know what I’m talking about.” Ellmers argues she wants “more of a free market approach” to health care reform, whereby the federal government would “remove restrictions” to “increase competition.” But the health care reform law that Etheridge voted for amounts to a “government takeover,” she insists.
Do voters in her district see it the same way? “[They know] their health care now will be monitored and dictated by bureaucrats,” Ellmers says. “They’ve done their homework.”
Perhaps. But in the last few weeks of the 2010 campaign, Ellmers will have plenty of work herself. Her name recognition around the district is growing slowly but surely, and Ellmers's plan to air television ads, aiming to let more voters know they have an alternative to Bob Etheridge, might help. If she succeeds, Ellmers will have uprooted one of the remaining Democratic strongholds in the South.