Donald Trump’s endorsement of Rep. Renee Ellmers in North Carolina sent shock waves through the likely GOP presidential nominee’s supporters over the weekend, stoking new fears about his political reliability after the first person he backed has a record diametrically opposed to him on immigration.
Mrs. Ellmers has been one of the House GOP’s staunchest supporters of legalizing illegal immigrants and voted against Republicans’ efforts last year to stop President Obama’s deportation amnesty.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has said getting rid of that amnesty will be one of his first pieces of business, and he’ll also build a border wall and try to deport illegal immigrants — stances that helped catapult him to victory in the Republican primary.
“Donald Trump has just stepped on the wrong side of the immigration debate,” said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee. “There are true base conservatives across the state of North Carolina that are fighting against candidates like Renee Ellmers, and to see Trump weigh in on the wrong side — this is almost a case of friendly fire or collateral damage. He has dropped his bombs on the wrong people in North Carolina.
Mr. Gheen, who is based in North Carolina, said he read Mr. Trump’s move as payback to Mrs. Ellmers, who endorsed Mr. Trump earlier this year ahead of the state’s presidential primary.
Now it’s Mrs. Ellmers who’s locked in a tough primary of her own against another incumbent, Rep. George Holding, after a court-mandated redistricting redrew the state’s congressional lines.
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With the primary on Tuesday, analysts say Mrs. Ellmers is the underdog. She’s been outspent by Mr. Holding and his allies, and she’s suffering from several high-profile moves to undermine the party, including on both immigration and abortion issues.
Mrs. Ellmers led the charge to scuttle a pro-life bill earlier this year, saying the GOP needed to broaden its concerns beyond abortion and other social issues in order to attract younger voters. That move drew the enmity of pro-life groups, which are working to defeat her.
So are free-market advocates and groups such as Mr. Gheen’s, which wants to see a stricter immigration stance.
That leaves Mrs. Ellmers searching for friends — and she got one over the weekend with Mr. Trump, who recorded a phone message calling the congresswoman a “fighter” and saying she’ll be part of the Trump movement in Washington.
Mrs. Ellmers won office in 2010 as part of the tea party wave, but those groups have since turned on her. The Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund said Mrs. Ellmers was “seduced by Washington,” voting for massive spending bills, supporting reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and backing Mr. Obama’s deportation amnesty.
“She has made clear that she no longer thinks of herself as her constituents’ representative to Washington; instead she thinks of herself as Washington’s representative to her constituents,” Jenny Beth Martin, chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriots fund, said.
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That approach makes it all the more striking that Mr. Trump, who has run against the Washington establishment, is backing Mrs. Ellmers’ bid.
Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University, said the Trump endorsement appears to be a case of repaying loyalty: Mrs. Ellmers backed Mr. Trump, and he’s returning the favor. Mr. Taylor said activists who are backing Mr. Trump shouldn’t be surprised.
“That’s Trump, right? Trump is the deal-maker. He doesn’t have fixed positions. He’s a work in progress, he didn’t grow up in politics, so his positions are weak, fluid,” Mr. Taylor said. “If they don’t like the sliding that’s represented by the Ellmers endorsement, get used to it because there’s going to be a lot more if it in the campaign.”
In North Carolina, the Trump endorsement may give Mrs. Ellmers a boost of last-minute attention, but it’s unlikely to swing the needle much in either direction, Mr. Taylor said.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said Mr. Trump’s move may look odd on its face, but strategically it makes sense: Many of the anti-Ellmers groups, such as the conservative Club for Growth, were already opposed to Mr. Trump, so his endorsement doesn’t cost him anything there.
And besides, Mr. Trump gets to show loyalty to a embattled congresswoman, at a time when he’s looking to connect with female voters, Mr. O’Connell said.
“Donald Trump is looking at this from a national perspective and right now he needs to get as many friends on board as possible, even ones he may disagree with,” the strategist said.
Democrats are convinced that backing Mr. Trump will be a problem for GOP candidates down the ticket — particularly after the presidential hopeful questioned the impartiality of a federal judge, accusing the U.S.-born man of bias because of Mexican heritage.
Neither Mrs. Ellmers’ congressional office nor her campaign spokesman returned messages seeking comment on her ties to Mr. Trump.