Besides House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers may have had the roughest week in Washington.
Ellmers on Friday acknowledged rumors and reports of an improper relationship with McCarthy and thanked supporters for the “outpouring of support and prayers” she had received.
“As someone who has been targeted by completely false accusations and innuendo, I have been moved by the outpouring of support and prayers from my colleagues, constituents and friends,” Ellmers said in the statement in response to reports that she and McCarthy were engaged in an extramarital affair.
“Now I will be praying for those who find it acceptable to bear false witness,” Ellmers continued.
The reasons for McCarthy’s decision are unclear — sources suggested Thursday that he didn’t have the votes to win, while McCarthy said the conference needs a fresh face.
But the fact that McCarthy exited the race after North Carolina Republican Walter Jones sent a letter Tuesday to Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, asking anyone who had committed “misdeeds” since joining Congress to withdraw from leadership elections, is intensifying the rumors about McCarthy and Ellmers.
After saying Thursday that his letter didn’t refer to anything specific or to McCarthy, he told CQ Roll Call Friday that he wrote it, in part, because he had heard the rumors of an extramarital affair that were published on a conservative blog.
Those rumors have been circulating in the state since late last year, a North Carolina political consultant told CQ Roll Call.
In Friday morning’s GOP conference meeting, Ellmers, who had backed Majority Whip Steve Scalise for majority leader , thanked her fellow lawmakers for their “prayers and support,” according to Politico .
Sources close to Ellmers have maintained that she is not resigning from Congress and that she is running for re-election.
“Party officials do have some concern that Renee has been unfairly maligned and that there is a bunch of absolute rumor-mongering,” a GOP source told CQ Roll Call on Friday.
But Ellmers already faces three primary challenges for her safely Republican 2nd District seat, which Mitt Romney carried by double digits in 2012.
Not all Republicans, especially some of the tea party conservatives who helped elect her in 2010, are happy with Ellmers’ performance since she’s been in Congress.
“We joked that we’d never seen a member go from an outsider to an insider as fast as she did,” a former House chief of staff told CQ Roll Call on Friday.
A GOP source with knowledge of Ellmer’s district told CQ Roll Call that she’ll face a competitive primary.
“There’s worry that anything that makes her less conservative will hurt her in the primary,” the source said.
Earlier this year, on the eve of the annual March for Life, Ellmers was instrumental in convincing leadership to pull the GOP’s 20-week abortion ban bill , the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” and substituting it with a less controversial legislation that would prohibit taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions.
Ellmers, who chairs the Women’s Republican Policy Committee, had argued that that kind of legislation would alienate too many of the women her party needs to attract. In the original bill, the only exception to the ban on getting an abortion after 20 weeks was in the case of danger of life, rape or incest — but only if the woman had reported the rape to the police.
Along with 75 other Republicans, she sided with Democrats in passing a Homeland Security spending bill that did not address President Barack Obama’s executive action on deferred deportations.
Local activists were similarly angered last cycle when Ellmers supported giving undocumented immigrants earned legal work status in 2013.
She faced a primary challenge from radio talk show host Franke Roche, whom she defeated 59 percent-41 percent.
Roche is mounting another challenge to the three-term congresswoman, but after last cycle’s loss, he’s not regarded as the most competitive opponent.
The more serious challenger this year is Jim Duncan, the chairman of the Chatham County Republican Party. Duncan, a retired businessman who ran a computer disaster recovery company, has the ability to raise money and has political connections.
Ellmers is also being targerted — quite literally in a recent ad — by conservative Kay Daly, who, in the video, lifts and fires a shotgun, declaring that she is “hunting RINOs.”
Since she’s been in Congress, Ellmers has voted with her party 95 percent of the time — slightly higher than for the average Republican, according to CQ’s Vote Watch .
This fall, she voted against the continuing resolution because it did not cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
So far, Ellmers’ campaign seems to be in better financial shape than it was before last year’s midterms. Ellmers ended the 2nd quarter of this year with $350,000 in the bank. At the same time in the 2014 cycle, Ellmers had only $180,000 in cash on hand.
A crowded primary field should work in Ellmers’ favor, a Republican operative in North Carolina said, since her three challengers will likely split the anti-incumbent vote.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the leadership position for which Ellmers had endorsed Scalise.