A registered nurse who won a seat in Congress in 2010 on the promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Renee Ellmers was part of a huge freshman class that catapulted the Republican Party into the House majority. In her three terms, Ellmers, who before arriving on the Hill ran a medical practice with her husband in Dunn, North Carolina, worked to overturn regulations on community doctors and regional insurers from her seat as chairwoman of the Small Business Committee’s Subcommittee on Healthcare and Technology. She became an ally of Republican leadership, and took risks supporting necessary legislation that her most conservative constituents often opposed. “I’m an effective member of Congress that uses common sense and cares about my constituents,” she said late in her House career. “It’s not an issue of conservatism to me. I use my conservatism as a tool for good policy to fix problems in Washington.”1
Renee Ellmers was born on February 9, 1964, in the town of Ironwood, Michigan, just steps from Wisconsin’s northern border. When her father took a job in the auto industry, her family moved from the pastoral landscape of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to suburban Detroit, and she later graduated from Madison High School just a short drive up I-75 from downtown. After high school, Ellmers was hired as a medical assistant and she used her wages to pay tuition at nearby Oakland University. She graduated with a B.S. in nursing in 1990. Ellmers, her husband, Brent—a surgeon she met while working at Beaumont Hospital in Detroit—and their son, Ben, moved to North Carolina in 1998 following a visit to see relatives near Raleigh.2
After opening and operating a medical practice with her husband in Dunn, Ellmers became involved with her town’s civic life: first with the local chamber of commerce where she helped direct its community development agenda and served as president-elect in 2009, and then with the Dunn planning board where she served from 2006 to 2011, including a stint as chairwoman from 2008 to 2009.3
Ellmers made the jump from community activism into politics in response to the effort by Congress and the Barack Obama administration to overhaul the nation’s health-care system in 2009 with the Affordable Care Act.4 Ellmers was an outspoken critic of the bill almost from the start. In August 2009, she went to the Hands Off My Health Care bus tour as it swung through her area, telling the local press covering the event that as medical professionals both she and her husband opposed the bill.5 That year she also started attending meetings of the local Harnett County Republican Party and by the start of December, Ellmers’ frustration with the health-care legislation had motivated her to run for the U.S. House in North Carolina’s Second Congressional District.6 “I’m running for Congress because I’m a mom and I’m very afraid of where our country is going and where the current administration in Washington is taking us,” she said.7
Despite having no political experience, Ellmers recruited a veteran campaign team ahead of the GOP primary, and aligned her platform with the conservative Tea Party movement that had erupted across America in 2010.8 Although she promised to protect Social Security and Medicare, Ellmers wanted to drastically cut taxes and spending.9 In early May, she defeated two other candidates with about 55 percent of the vote.10
Her opponent in the general election was seven-term incumbent Democrat Bobby R. Etheridge who had served in Congress since 1997. “I’m going to be running on his voting record,” when asked about her campaign strategy.11 She criticized Etheridge’s support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program passed during the George W. Bush administration which stabilized Wall Street following the crash. And she attacked him for his vote to raise the debt ceiling and for his decision to back the Obama administration’s stimulus package in 2009.12 But of all the issues in the campaign, health care proved decisive.13 Ellmers believed that “free-market solutions” could best manage America’s health-care needs. “Health care, I’m sorry, is not a right that we have in the Constitution,” she said at a meet-and-greet with voters in Pittsboro in January 2010. “There is a responsibility for individuals to pay for health care.”14
After Etheridge was filmed grabbing the wrist of a young man as he tried interview him on a Capitol Hill sidewalk, Ellmers received a flood of campaign donations. Coupled with an endorsement from former Vice Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin later that summer, Ellmers went into the fall with notable momentum.15 Ellmers toed the party line leading up to the general election. “We’ve got to turn this country around. We’ve got to cut taxes. We’ve got to cut spending. We’ve got to repeal Obamacare and get government out of everyone’s lives,” she said two weeks out from Election Day. The major local paper, Raleigh’s News & Observer, endorsed Etheridge, but Ellmers won a narrow victory over the incumbent by only 1,483 votes, or less than 1 percent.16 Ellmers won re-election in 2012 with 56 percent of the vote, and in 2014 with 59 percent of the vote.17
As a freshman in the 112th Congress (2011–2013), Ellmers was assigned to three committees that dealt directly with issues facing her district. From her post on the Foreign Affairs Committee she could look after the large military presence in her district at Fort Bragg. Her spot on the Agriculture Committee gave her a voice on issues affecting farmers in her region. And she used her own experience running a medical practice to inform her work on the Small Business Committee. In particular, as chairwoman of Small Business’ Subcommittee on Healthcare & Technology Ellmers attacked the Affordable Care Act for provisions she believed would hurt smaller health-care providers. She worked to help doctors improve their office technology and sought to lower fines on medical practices that could not meet new electronic prescription regulations.18
In her first term, Ellmers submitted a number of bills that sought to cut spending on foreign aid, lower taxes on imports like Tungsten and other chemicals, and prohibit tolls on interstate highways in North Carolina.19 But her main piece of legislation in the 112th Congress was H.R. 1425, the Creating Jobs Through Small Business Innovation Act of 2011, which authorized the renewal of both the Small Business Innovation Research program and the Small Business Technology Transfer program. These were longstanding federal initiatives designed to encourage research and development at small technology.20
As chairwoman of the Healthcare & Technology Subcommittee overseeing part of the bill, Ellmers called a hearing to consider her draft on April 7, 2011. Both programs, she said, “have a proven track record of creating jobs, advancing innovative science in the marketplace, and solving federal agency problems. Our legislative goal is to strengthen these programs to ensure efficient use of taxpayer dollars that help create more jobs by targeting the best science.”21 The Small Business Committee reported it favorably to the House on July 1, 2011. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which had additional jurisdiction over the bill, also reported it favorably, but it was never brought up in the House for a standalone vote.22
Ellmers kept a full schedule on the Hill, often waking up at 5:30 a.m. and working straight through until close to midnight. Getting to know her colleagues in the House was also a revelatory experience. “I think that folks back home see those that are here in Washington as more characters than actual individuals with families and mortgage payments,” she told the New York Times. “I wasn’t expecting people to be as down to earth as they are. We’re not disconnected. We really understand what Americans are going through.”23
Early on she developed a close working relationship with party leaders in the House, and later chaired the Republican Women’s Policy Committee. Although she had been critical of the decision to raise the debt ceiling during her first campaign for the House in 2010, Ellmers helped convince wary Members to support Speaker John Boehner’s proposal to raise the debt ceiling in 2011.24 “Nothing worthwhile has ever come easy,” she said explaining her vote for the bill. “Yesterday as I stood on the House floor, I took a deep breath and cast my vote for a bill that, while imperfect, will protect our economy.”25
In the 113th Congress (2013–2015), Ellmers stepped down from her earlier committee assignments for a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, where she continued to work to roll back provisions in the Affordable Care Act. Her bills for that Congress included measures to address federal health-care exchanges, to help wounded veterans, and to reclassify available health-insurance plans.26 But her most popular measure was the Cancer Patient Protection Act of 2013, which gathered a bipartisan coalition of 123 cosponsors. The bill, which did not receive a committee hearing, protected funding for cancer treatment from the automatic spending cuts (called sequestration) that took effect in 2013.27
The 114th Congress (2015–2017) saw Ellmers increase her legislative activity twofold. The number of bills she introduced jumped from 16 in the 113th Congress to 30 in the 114th Congress, but health care remained her priority. Her legislative agenda included bills that addressed a range of health-care issues, everything from information technology, vaccines, eating disorders, medical records, disposable medical technology, “loan repayment programs” at the National Institutes of Health, and prosthetic limbs.28
Despite her hard line on the ACA, Ellmers worked with a Democratic colleague from North Carolina to help people on Medicare access the latest in medical technology. And she worked with a California Democrat on energy issues.29
In 2016, federal courts forced North Carolina to redraw its congressional map, and in the process a substantial chunk of voters were from the Thirteenth District into Ellmers’ Second District—it was such a big change that one election analysis estimated that the new Second District only housed 15 percent of Ellmers’ original constituency. As a result, the incumbent from the Thirteenth District, George E.B. Holding, opted to challenge Ellmers in the nearby Second. Ellmers, who was an early supporter of Donald J. Trump in the Republican presidential primary and who accepted Trump’s endorsement of her own candidacy, was criticized for not being conservative enough in Congress. On Election Day, Ellmers lost to Holding by roughly 30 percent in the Republican primary.30 In 2017, she joined the Department of Health and Human Services as the director of region 4 based in Atlanta, Georgia.31
1Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 725–726. Quotation from Catherine Ho, “Here’s What Happens When a Tea Party Darling Is Recast As an Enemy,” 5 June 2016, Washington Post: A4.
2Florence Gilkeson, “Our New Coble? Moore in Line to Joint Ellmers’ Debut,” 18 September 2011, The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC): n.p.; Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 1208–1209; “Economy, Creating Jobs Big Issues in District 2 Congressional Race,” 18 October 2010, Wilson Daily Times (NC): n.p.
3“Economy, Creating Jobs Big Issues in District 2 Congressional Race”; Politics in America, 2014: 725.
4Billy Liggett, “Q&A: Ellmers the New Face of Central N.C.’s GOP,” 24 August 2010, Standard Herald (NC): n.p.
5“Hands Off Health Care,” 9 August 2009, Wilson Daily Times (NC): n.p.
6Ellmers formally filed for office in February 2010. “Political Notes,” 7 December 2009, Wilson Daily Times (NC): n.p.; Gordon Anderson, “Republican Tosses Hat in Ring for Congress,” 14 December 2009, Sanford Herald (NC): n.p.; “Area: Harnett Sheriff Seeking Missing Man,” 22 February 2010, Sanford Herald (NC): n.p.; Liggett, “Q&A: Ellmers the New Face of Central N.C.’s GOP.”
7“Under the Dome,” 21 December 2009, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.
8“Political Notes,” 17 December 2009, Wilson Daily Times (NC): n.p.; Rob Christensen, “Candidates Set Sights on Etheridge,” 18 January 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.
9Michael Biesecker, “GOP Novices Gun for Etheridge’s House Seat,” 28 April 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.
10“Here are the Results for How the Triangle Voted,” 6 May 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 723.
11“Mixed Results in Races for House Seats 2, 4 and 13,” 4 May 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.
12“Dunn Republican Files to Run Against Etheridge in Nov.,” 23 February 2010, Sanford Herald (NC): n.p.
13Rob Christensen, “Risky Business for N.C. Democrats,” 22 March 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.
14Rob Christensen, “Candidates Set Sights on Etheridge,” 18 January 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; Gordon Anderson, “Two Etheridge Challengers Debate in Pittsboro,” Sanford Herald (North Carolina): n.p.
15Rob Christensen, “Etheridge Slip Puts Foe on Map,” 16 June 2010, News & Observer: n.p.; Brian Montopoli, “Bob Etheridge Altercation with ‘Student’ Caught on Tape, Goes Viral,”14 June 2010, CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/bob-etheridge-altercation-with-student-caught-on-tape-goes-viral/ (accessed 28 June 2017); “Notable Numbers,” 19 June 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; “Palin Endorses NC Congressional Hopeful Ellmers,” 18 August 2010, Associated Press: n.p.; “Under the Dome: Buoyed by Palin, Ellmers Demands a Debate,” 20 August 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; “Under the Dome: Ellmers Pulls Ahead in Recent Fundraising,” 20 October 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; “Under the Dome: Ellmers Pulls Ahead in Recent Fundraising,” 20 October 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; Jay Price, “Etheridge Is in A Different Game,” 26 October 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.
16Mike Baker, “NC Rep. Etheridge Faces Tea Party Challenge,” 22 October 2010, Associated Press; “Editorial: Hill-Toppers,” 22 October 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; Barbara Barrett and Jay Price, “Ellmers Edges out Etheridge in Tight Race,” 2 November 2010, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
17Almanac of American Politics, 2014 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013): 1244; Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Colombia Books & Information Services, 2015): 1349.
18Politics in America, 2012: 723; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 725.
19On foreign-aid spending, see H.R. 2059, 112th Cong. (2011). On Tungsten, see H.R. 4539, 112th Cong. (2012). And on toll roads, see H.R. 4174, 112th Cong. (2012).
20See H.R. 1425, 112th Cong. (2011).
21Hearing before the House Small Business Committee, Subcommittee on Healthcare & Technology, The Creating Jobs Through Small Business Innovation Act of 2011, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (7 April 2011): 2.
22House Committee on Small Business, Creating Jobs Through Small Business Innovation Act of 2011, 112th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 90, part 2 (1 July 2011); House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Creating Jobs Through Small Business Innovation Act of 2011, 112th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 90, part 1 (26 May 2011).
23Jennifer Steinhauer, “In Siding With Leaders, a Freshman Finds Her Voice,” 10 August 2011, New York Times: A14.
24Politics in America, 2014: 725; Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Columbia Books & Information Services, 2015): 1351.
25Steve Ford, “Deal Took Her from Tea to Team,” 7 August 2011, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC
26See H.R. 2789, 113th Cong. (2013); H.R. 3338, 113th Cong. (2013); H.R. 3408, 113th Cong. (2013); and H.R. 3450, 113th Cong. (2013).
27See H.R. 1416, 113th Cong. (2013); Congressional Record, House, 113th Cong., 1st sess. (10 April 2013): H1867.
28See H.R. 3309, 114th Cong. (2015); H.R. 786, 114th Cong. (2015); H.R. 4153, 114th Cong. (2015); H.R. 5001, 114th Cong. (2016); H.R. 1018, 114th Cong. (2015); H.R. 2440, 114th Cong. (2015); H.R. 5054, 114th Cong. (2016).
29Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 1351.
30Ho, “Here’s What Happens When a Tea Party Darling Is Recast As an Enemy”; Lynn Bonner, “George Holding Defeats Renee Ellmers in 2nd District’s Incumbent Showdown,” 7 June 2016, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; Bryan Anderson, “NC Republicans Offer Varying Levels of Support for Trump,” 9 June 2016, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; “Renee Ellmers Lost the Conservative Test,” 9 June 2016, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; Colin Campbell, “Under the Dome: Seven Things We Learned from Tuesday’s Primary Election,” 11 June 2016, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.
31Lynn Bonner, “Renee Ellmers, Who Endorsed Trump Early, Lands a Federal Job,” 24 May 2017, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC): n.p.; “Region 4,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, accessed 18 October 2017, https://www.hhs.gov/about/agencies/iea/regional-offices/region-4/index.html.