HOLLY SPRINGS, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's hastily redrawn congressional districts, combined with more $1 million spent on attacks by outside groups, have set up an unusual battle in the only U.S. House race nationwide pitting incumbents against each other.
Republicans Renee Ellmers and George Holding are vying to win over what's likely to be a small Election Day crowd after court-ordered redistricting upended their territories, along with the primary calendar.
It's the first time two sitting members of Congress have run against each other since 2012, and whoever takes the primary Tuesday has a strong chance of winning the Republican-leaning territory in the fall. A Republican doctor is also running.
Votes aren't coming cheaply considering Ellmers and Holding have each already spent more than $1 million. Outside groups also are pouring in money for ads saying Ellmers isn't conservative enough.
But in this town of 30,000 where Main Street divided the incumbents' territories before redistricting, several Republican voters said they were trying to look beyond labels.
"I think she's doing fine. I'm a moderate. I'm not a hardcore, right-wing Republican," said Russ Cramer, a commercial printer from Holly Springs who is leaning toward picking Ellmers.
Ellmers believes the attacks by Washington-based conservative groups are retribution for not following their agendas closely enough. For example, she drew the ire of groups pushing restrictions on late-term abortions when she helped remove reporting requirements for rape victims from the legislation. The 2015 bill died in the Senate.
"The reason they have come out in support of my opponent rather than me is that they want to make an example out of me: 'How dare you interfere with what we want?'" she said in an interview, noting the anti-abortion National Right To Life Committee gives her perfect marks on its scorecard despite opposing her candidacy.
The campaigns have drawn distinctions over a handful of key votes, including a budget bill passed in 2013 and a spending package approved last year that some conservatives saw as unpalatable compromises between Republican legislative leaders and the Obama administration. Ellmers voted for the deals, while Holding voted against.
"When these bills come along ... and the bill presented is not the best bill, I'm not going to vote for it regardless of what the leadership says," Holding said in a phone interview. "I'm very open about my conservatism and my belief that we need to cut spending and reduce national debt."
Their matchup was set in motion in February when the General Assembly was forced to quickly redraw the state's congressional districts after a federal court ruled that two were unconstitutionally race-based. Ellmers' 2nd District shifted north and east, while Holding's 13th District moved to a different part of the state.
Meanwhile, a significant portion of the district that previously elected Holding was absorbed by the new 2nd, where both are now running. The district includes Raleigh suburbs as well as rural areas jutting south, north and east from the capital city.
The last time incumbents faced each other in congressional primaries was 2012, when there were seven such races nationwide between Democrats and four between Republicans, according to federal elections data analyzed by the Brookings Institution. That was the first election cycle after redistricting prompted by the 2010 Census.
Several groups have run ads opposing Ellmers. The Washington-based conservative group Club for Growth has spent about $700,000 on TV and online ads opposing her, said spokesman Doug Sachtleben. The North Carolina-based American Foundations Committee has spent more than $300,000 to attack her or support Holding, according to federal elections filings.
Americans for Prosperity has also attacked Ellmers with spending in the "low six figures" on mailings, digital ads, phone calls and neighborhood canvassing — the first time it's ever attacked a Republican incumbent in a congressional primary, said its North Carolina director, Donald Bryson.
The group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers cited the 2013 budget deal and a few other votes as evidence of her support for what it sees as wasteful spending.
Another wildcard is the candidacy of Republican doctor Greg Brannon, who's previously run for U.S. Senate and could siphon away precious votes in an oddly timed election split off from the turnout-boosting presidential primary.
In Holly Springs, Cramer said he considered Brannon but thinks he will pick Ellmers instead. The 57-year-old said he's unimpressed by ads touting Holding as a "real conservative" and implying that Ellmers isn't. Ellmers has countered with ads saying Holding is "no conservative."
"I was confused by the one about her not being conservative enough," he said.
At a nearby public library, Mitch Lyman said he is concerned about Ellmers' vote last year on the spending plan but hasn't made up his mind between her and Holding. The 58-year-old instructor on electrical systems at a community college described himself as a Libertarian with a GOP voter registration.
"My problem with it is that it just keeps going up — the national debt," he said. "I don't believe Republicans are good and Democrats are bad. They are going in the same direction but speaking different languages."
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.