Election 2020

Conservative Group Makes First Foray Into Primaries -- Against a Republican Incumbent

The conservative non-profit group Americans for Prosperity is planning to launch expensive ads attacking North Carolina Republican Representative Renee Ellmers in her June primary. The organization has never before targeted a GOP member of Congress in a primary.

In comments to PJ Media, Americans for Prosperity focused on Ellmers’ support for the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank, the most clear-cut example of corporate welfare. Other groups such as the Heritage Foundation and Freedom Partners have attempted to block reauthorization of the bank, which expired last year. While Ex-Im’s charter was renewed, conservative organizations will continue to fight it.

AFP aims to spend six-figures on advertising, including five to eight separate mailers, as well as digital ads on streaming platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Hulu, in the four weeks leading up to the June 7 primary. Representative George Holding and two-time Senate candidate Greg Brannon are running against Ellmers in the race to represent District 2. That district was redrawn in accordance with court-mandated redistricting earlier this year.

“Rep. Renee Ellmers has sadly become a part of the very Washington she once claimed she wanted to fix,” AFP President Tim Phillips told Politico. “After giving Rep. Ellmers every chance to match her votes to her prior rhetoric, she’s demonstrated an unacceptable pattern of supporting wasteful government spending and corporate welfare. North Carolinians deserve a true conservative who will fight for them, not special interests.”

When PJ Media asked the organization which votes in particular led AFP to oppose Ellmers, the organization pointed to the Ex-Im Bank. “The Export-Import Bank is essentially a vehicle for corporate welfare that gives special backing to foreign entities and the political connected,” AFP Chief Operating Officer (COO) Luke Hilgemann told PJ Media in an email statement.

In late July, another organization praised Ellmers for supporting the Ex-Im Bank. Supporters of the bank, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say it would be hard for U.S. businesses to compete overseas without it, but many conservatives oppose it as a form of corporate welfare.


“This was an institution that simply flew under the radar for years until Americans for Prosperity made it a major issue,” Hilgemann declared. “It represents the kind of cronyism that needs to come to an end in Washington.”

Cronyism, or crony capitalism, refers to the collusion between big government and big business which promotes both at the expense of the taxpayer and small businesses. Opposing this racket is an issue that brings together free market conservatives and doctrinaire big-government liberals like Bernie Sanders.

The difference is that small-government conservatives would solve the issue by reining in government, while liberals would expand government to help both big and small businesses. The problem is, government expansion inherently supports large businesses which have the manpower and money to meet the demands of increasing regulation — something smaller firms cannot achieve.

Next Page: Early AFP ad praises Ellmers’ rival but will not endorse, other groups have also attacked Ellmers, such as the Club for Growth and the National Right to Life Committee.

In an early ad attacking Ellmers, AFP alleges that the congresswoman broke her word. “Americans balance their budgets, work hard. Renee Ellmers promised to do the same, but she became part of the Washington problem,” the narrator declares. “She promised spending limits, then voted against them. She ran against special interest deals, then voted for them.”

Then the ad praises Representative George Holding. “But George Holding kept his word. Opposing wasteful spending, protecting taxpayers, standing up to special interests.”

AFP insists that it is not endorsing any candidate in the race, only attacking Ellmers. When asked why the ad supports Holding as opposed to Brannon, Hilgemann explained, “We’re simply showing a contrasting record.”

Brannon simply does not have a congressional record, while Holding does. Even if Brannon perfectly supports the issues championed by groups like Americans for Prosperity, he cannot be held accountable in the same way.

Interestingly, Ellmers’ campaign shot back in a radio ad attacking Holding for a “first-class trip to Jordan.” Hilariously, the ad ridicules Holding for ordering a gourmet meal. Was it lobster? Perhaps some high-end filet mignon? Maybe escargot? Nope. Cheese tortellini.

“For Congress, we have a choice between a man who fancies cheese tortellini … and one powerful conservative in Renee Ellmers,” the radio ad declares. “George Holding voted against the farm bill, against military funding to defeat ISIS. But Holding voted for cheese tortellini when selecting his meal for a recent first-class ticket on a trans-Atlantic flight that he billed to you, the taxpayer.”


AFP COO Hilgemann focused on the cronyism of the Ex-Im Bank and the farm bill, saying that supporting those shows Ellmers to be a false conservative. “It’s possible to take a stand for economic freedom in Congress,” and AFP supports that, the COO wrote. “Our focus is primarily on the fact that Rep. Ellmers has talked like a small-government advocate, but many of her votes show she’s become part of the Washington problem.”

AFP has been very active in North Carolina — it was one of the first states where the group opened a chapter office, back in 2004. The state division now has twelve full-time staffers and eight field directors, who will lead a grass-roots persuasion campaign against Ellmers.

Ellmers entered Congress in 2010 as part of the tea party wave, and even appeared at an AFP Hands Off Our Healthcare rally in 2012. But other conservative groups have joined with AFP against Ellmers. The Club for Growth opposed her in 2014 and is going so again this year. In March, the National Right to Life Committee endorsed George Holding, and the Susan B. Anthony List also announced it will not support her.

It is too early to predict whether or not replacing Ellmers will lead to another shutdown of the Ex-Im Bank, but groups like Americans for Prosperity will not give up. Battles like this may prove largely symbolic, but these organizations exist to encourage Republicans to support free market issues. Even if Ellmers wins re-election, episodes like this should encourage her to toughen her stance on the issues she originally ran on.

See the AFP Ad on the next page.