Renee Ellmers was sitting at home in Dunn, N.C. when she got a phone call from her husband the morning of June 14.
“Renee, you’ve got to look at your Facebook page,” said her husband, Brent.
That was how Rep. Bob Etheridge’s Republican opponent for Congress found out about the North Carolina Democrat’s physical assault – on video – of a self-identified student who asked him if he fully supported the Obama agenda.
The video of Etheridge manhandling the young man, repeatedly growling, “Who are you?” and grabbing his wrist and neck, has been viewed millions of times on YouTube. And it has put the 14-term congressman’s job at risk.
Ellmers, a 46-year old nurse and mother who has never before run for office, stands to benefit from Etheridge’s mistake. But she said in an interview Thursday that the political impact of the video was not forefront in her mind when she saw the video, which she saw after someone posted it on her Facebook page.
“My first thoughts were I really felt pity for the man. I really, really felt pity for him. But I knew that at the same time he had made a obviously made a huge mistake. You just don’t put your hands on somebody,” Ellmers said.
“I was shocked. My thoughts were, ‘Wow, this is bad for him. This is really bad,’” she said. “I guess I didn’t automatically think about it in terms of what this would do. I certainly at the moment of watching it did not expect for it to go viral the way that it did.”
But it did indeed go viral, and a few days after the incident, a SurveyUSA poll showed Ellmers leading Etheridge by one point, 39 percent to 38 percent.
When asked if they had seen the video or hear or read anything about it, 84 percent of the 400 registered voters polled said they had, and 45 percent said it made them less likely to vote for Etheridge, while 39 percent said it made no difference, and 14 percent said it made them more likely to vote for him.
The Etheridge Campaign did not return a request for comment, but national Democrats are paying attention to the race, which indicates they are worried about it. Democrats privately cast doubt on the poll, disparaging the John Pope Civitas Institute – which commissioned the poll – as a conservative partisan organization. And the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling also downplayed the survey that showed Ellmers – who was unknown to 71 percent of voters in the poll – with an advantage.
“It may end up that Etheridge really is vulnerable this fall, but I am skeptical,” said PPP’s Tom Jensen on his blog. “If anything this strikes me as Etheridge’s low water mark. If he’s only down by a point after what will certainly be the worst week of the campaign for him he’ll probably be fine this fall.”