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.”
Etheridge does have a built in advantage in North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district, which has a long history of electing Democrats to office. A Republican held the seat for only one term in the entire 20th century, when David Funderburk rode the Republican revolution to victory in 1994 only to be beaten in 1996 by Etheridge, who has held the seat since then.
In addition, Etheridge has so far held an enormous money advantage. Etheridge showed $1.1 million in his war chest in the last report to the Federal Elections Commission, while Ellmers had only $5,462 in cash on hand.
Ellmers said she has received a “big boost” since the Etheridge video first hit the Internet but also said she is still “far behind Congressman Etheridge.” She would not disclose how much money she has raised since the video surfaced
“I certainly have no name recognition. That’s a battle,” Ellmers admitted. But, she said, “it doesn’t matter what party, people are tired of what’s happening in Washington and they’re very upset with congressman Etheridge for his vote on health care in particular.”
Etheride also voted for Obama’s stimulus bill – which was sold as a $787 billion expenditure but later revised upward to $862 billion. And he voted for the “cap and trade” bill that has yet to make its way to the Senate.
Ellmers, who works with her husband, a surgeon, is basing much of her insurgent campaign on opposition to President Obama’s health care bill that passed into law this past March.
The U.S. has “the best health care system in the world,” and while there are “reforms that need to take place,” Ellmers said most of the problems have to do with skyrocketing insurance costs, which she said need to be addressed through a free market approach.
Ellmers also said that Obama’s presidency “all seems to be getting back to redistribution of wealth.”
“He will say he is a friend of the free enterprise system but he obviously isn’t. He doesn’t seem to have business sense,” she said. “You cannot pay for things when just don’t have the money. We’re just running up debt uncontrollably. The spending in Washington is out of control.”
This article originally stated that Rep. Etheridge was involved in an altercation with an intern. It has been amended to reflect that the young man in the video is a self-identified student whose identity has not been confirmed.