The GOP’s Purity Problem

What the Renee Ellmers race in North Carolina says about the Republican Party.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers speaks before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2013 in Washington, D.C.
North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers speaks before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democratic presidential primary is in its final stretch and its outcome will dominate airwaves Tuesday night. But under the radar in North Carolina, a very different politician than Hillary Clinton is fighting her own battle against an ideological challenger in a race that almost acts as a microcosm for all the problems and dysfunctions of the Republican Party—the same ones that propelled Donald Trump to its presidential nomination.

When Renee Ellmers entered Congress in 2011, she was the hero. One of dozens of conservative Republicans elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, she made national news as a vocal opponent of the proposed mosque at Ground Zero and won support from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as one of her “Mama Grizzlies.” Ellmers campaigned as a hard-right conservative and for the most part, she’s acted as one, building a solid conservative voting record in her three terms as representative for North Carolina’s second congressional district.

Unlike many of her Tea Party peers, however, Ellmers seems to think government should function on the day-to-day. A close ally to former House Speaker John Boehner, she backed both debt ceiling increases (in 2011 and 2013) and was a skeptic of the 2013 shutdown, eventually supporting the deal that reopened the government, preserving the Affordable Care Act against right-wing demands. Aligning herself with constituents and Republican leadership, she backed a limited immigration proposal that gave “earned legal work status” to some number of unauthorized immigrants. She voted to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which supports thousands of jobs in her district (and is opposed by conservative libertarians), and removed a provision from an anti-abortion bill that would have required rape survivors to report a rape to police in order to get an abortion after 20 weeks. None of this is liberal—it’s the record of a typical conservative Republican. But it’s enough to make her a target for conservative activists.

Now, Ellmers is the villain, a stand-in for the “corrupt” Republican establishment. And thanks to an unusual mid-decade redistricting, she has to vie for her seat against Republican Rep. George Holding, who now sits in the same district. Also running is Greg Bannon, a physician and twice-unsuccessful candidate for the GOP Senate nomination. Holding is the new conservative favorite with an endorsement from the Susan B. Anthony List—an anti-abortion group that typically backs Republican women—and tacit support from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, which is running ads against Ellmers.

Those aren’t the only conservative groups that have jumped into the fray against Ellmers. For funding the government, lifting the debt ceiling, and working with Republican leaders in Congress, the Conservative Review—founded by radio host and author Mark Levin—gave her a “liberty score” of F, for failing. The anti-tax Club for Growth says it will “actively oppose” Ellmers in the primary for “clearly betraying the conservative values of her constituents.” “Since so many of the voters in NC–02 are new to the district, CFG Action wants to be sure they know that Renee Ellmers is a big-government liberal,” said president David McIntosh in a May statement.

None of this—conservative voters and conservative groups turning against a conservative Republican for insufficient hostility to government—is new, but it takes on new resonance in the Age of Trump. This relentless drive for ideological purity, itself tied to a broad prohibition against compromise with anyone outside a narrowly defined tribe of fellow travelers, has done nothing but paralyze the Republican Party’s ability to accomplish anything from the routine maintenance of government to larger policy goals. And it’s produced figures like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who treat functional government as a bona fide betrayal of conservative values.

It has also produced deep frustration among GOP voters, who in six years have elected successive waves of conservative lawmakers to little avail. Promises of grand changes—We’ll repeal Obamacare, defend the border, and defund Planned Parenthood!—crash on the rocks of constitutional reality as the Republican Congress runs headfirst into the president’s veto pen. Conservatives like Cruz explain this away through attacks on Republicans like Ellmers, blasting them for betraying GOP voters.

And then in walks Trump: The GOP nominee appeals because he offers something different than the usual solution of electing more Republicans. He vows to steamroll over (presumably illegitimate) opposition. His promise to make “deals” is as much a rejection of Republican leaders as it is Obama. Trump voters want someone “strong” to break through Washington gridlock and deliver on past promises. And that’s what he says he’ll do.

Trump, it’s worth saying, is Ellmers’ prime ally in her re-election bid: He endorsed her over the weekend, calling her a “fighter.” “I need her help in Washington so we can work together to defeat ISIS, secure our border, and bring back jobs and frankly, so many other things,” said Trump. “And Renee knows how to do it. She gets it. And together, we will make America great again.” It’s not so much that Ellmers is close to Trump, who has no ideology or any particular system of belief outside of the will for power. But there’s an irony in the fact that the product of the GOP’s drive for purity is endorsing a candidate set to be a victim of that same drive.

Unfortunately for Ellmers, her right flank is fully mobilized against her—in a Republican primary, that’s enough to lose. And if she does, it will reverberate throughout the GOP landscape, a warning to any conservative lawmaker who decides they were elected to accomplish something and serve their constituents, not act as a mindless vote for ideology.  Which makes this relatively low-key primary in North Carolina extremely relevant to national politics.

More than most, Ellmers’ fight for re-election is illustrative of major trends in the Republican Party; trends that led to a succession of needless standoffs over routine government funding; trends that sacrificed conservative policy victories for affective rage against Obama; and trends that have culminated in the most dysfunctional and ill-prepared nominee to ever grace the presidential stage.

If the stakes weren’t so high, it would be a little funny.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.