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Rep. Renee Ellmers

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 18, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — Several national pro-life groups are pushing back against what one spokesperson called a “cheap shot” by Roll Call in an article that claims several GOP incumbents who have strayed from socially conservative positions are going unpunished by socially conservative organizations.

For pro-life advocates, perhaps the most high-profile of those races is in North Carolina's Second Congressional District, where a crowded field is attempting to replace Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-NC.

Three of the groups specifically cited by Roll Call told LifeSiteNews that their lack of involvement in that primary was reflective of practical realities and legal circumstances, not an intention to let Ellmers off the hook. Another group told LifeSiteNews it was working behind the scenes in efforts that it could not publicize.

Ellmers committed what many see as a betrayal of pro-life values when she led a revolt against the 20-week abortion ban that led to six months of acrimony within the movement before a modified version of the ban finally passed. The passed version was described as “substantially stronger than the original bill” by Rep. Trent Franks, R-AZ. But many pro-life leaders and grassroots activists said Ellmers' actions were unforgiveable.

Roll Call claims national pro-life groups aren't spending money to unseat Ellmers

In his story, Roll Call reporter Alex Roarty said that socially conservative groups have largely avoided getting involved in three races: the Ellmers primary; an underdog race against Senator Rob Portman, R-OH, who flipped to supporting same-sex “marriage”; and Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-TN, who among other actions has admitted to twice telling his wife to have an abortion.

Asked by LifeSiteNews why he chose those races out of the hundreds nationwide, Roarty said that “these were three prominent examples we thought were worth examining.” 

Roarty's article notes that social conservative efforts often lack the money fiscal groups like Club for Growth and Tea Party Patriots easily pull in. As a result, “not a single incumbent member of Congress is scared of [social conservatives],” one GOP strategist told Roarty on condition of anonymity.

Frank Cannon, president of the socially conservative American Principles Project, told Roarty, “Social-issue groups across the board need to recognize that if there are no consequences to people disagreeing with you, you’re not going to get taken seriously. We spend virtually nothing in directly engaging in elections. And the absence on that is one of the big dramatic flaws … for the social conservative movement.”

Another anonymous commenter, however, claimed that there may be more than money at play. “Pro-life groups want to get along with leadership,” said a person Roarty described as a social conservative leader. “They have board members who want to get along with leadership. They have donors who want to get along with leadership. So they make decisions not to get cross-ways with leadership.”

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told Roarty that his organization chose to not endorse in Ellmers' race because the size of the crowded primary led to disagreements on who to endorse. Additionally, “[Ellmers] has certainly not won a lot of favor among [pro-life] groups, but ever since she angered those groups, us included, she has been trying to patch that up to abate some of the anger that was out there,” he said.

On Portman, Perkins said it was difficult to find a candidate who would likely unseat the Ohio senator, who has statewide GOP support and enormous funding. Perkins told Roll Call he didn't know enough about Desjarlais' race to comment.

One national group, Eagle Forum PAC, has endorsed Ellmers opponent Jim Duncan, telling Roarty, “We would love for more social conservative groups to jump in — the water is fine.”

Pro-life groups push back

Roarty names four national pro-life organizations that declined to comment for his article – Susan B. Anthony List, Concerned Women for America, National Right to Life, and Americans United for Life (AUL) – but three of them pushed back strongly in comments to LifeSiteNews.

Americans United for Life spokesperson Kristi Hamrick said that the mention of her group was “a cheap shot.”

“SBA is organized for direct political activity in races,” said Hamrick. “AUL is a [501] C-3 that works on public policy. We don't endorse candidates or engage in direct politics. I told that to the Roll Call reporter, but that is not a role we are registered with the IRS to fill.”

“There are three Ps in politics — parties, people and policy,” Hamrick continued. “AUL advocates for pro-life public policy, and not in the other two areas.”

“It was a cheap shot. We were criticized for focusing on the work we are legally registered to do, rather than the work we are not set up to do. AUL's C-4 has been used only rarely, and is not set up for the kind of state-level politicking cited in the Roll Call story.”

Susa B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser told LifeSiteNews that her group is focusing on specific goals — and that Ellmers' betrayals of pro-lifers were not going unnoticed by constituents, regardless of what outside groups' plans are.

“We have been following Congresswoman Ellmers’ re-election race closely, and it is increasingly clear that she is collapsing under the weight of her own failed leadership on the pro-life issue and others,” she said. “We have chosen to spend our time and treasure on the most urgent priorities for the pro-life movement, which is to elect a true pro-life champion to the White House and protect our slim pro-life majority in the U.S. Senate. That’s why we have vocally opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy, and are building a ground force of hundreds of paid field staff in key presidential and Senate battleground states to ensure victory in November.”

While SBA list often works closely with leadership offices, it has also campaigned against establishment candidates. The organization spent $125,000 against the pro-abortion Dede Scozzafava in 2009, even though she was the GOP establishment's preferred nominee, and spent $50,000 on ads in support of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman instead. They also backed former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum over eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

National Right to Life spokesperson Tatiana Bergum said her organization does not publicly discuss strategy before an election, and the fact that a reporter is not aware of any action they have taken does not mean they aren’t acting.

“In the case of the Ellmers race, the primary isn't until June, we don't know for sure what the district lines will be, and we don't know for sure who her opponent(s) will be,” Bergum told LifeSiteNews. “Quite frankly, anyone who thinks they can divine our political strategy doesn't know what they're talking about. And again, we don't discuss our political strategy prior to an election.”

Ellmers’ race

The primary for Ellmers’ district was originally scheduled for March 15, but in February, a judge said House primaries would be shifted to June 7 in a dispute over redistricting. No national pro-life groups had endorsed one of Ellmers' opponents before the change, which took place about a month before the originally scheduled primary and resulted from a years-long lawsuit against the 2011 redistricting done by state Republicans.

The redistricting makes several significant changes to House primaries. In addition to pushing the primary back by three months, the candidate who garners the most votes will automatically move onto the general — as opposed to the normal run-off if no candidate garners a majority of votes.

Perhaps most importantly, it now pits Ellmers against a fellow Republican, Rep. George Holding. The redrawn maps cross Ellmers' district with Holding's. Rather than retire, run in a largely unfamiliar district, or run against an incumbent in a heavily Democratic district, the more conservative Holding has announced plans to unseat Ellmers.

Two people with knowledge of the new district said that Holding's entry could cause Ellmers' current opponents to depart the race, making any endorsements irrelevant.

One state-level group that chose not to endorse because of the redistricting change is the North Carolina Values Coalition. The group's executive director, Tami Fitzgerald, told Roarty, “It concerns me and it frustrates me because the national groups are not holding her feet to the fire.”

“We were about to endorse one of her primary opponents, Jim Duncan, when a 3-judge panel of federal judges overturned North Carolina’s congressional districts,” Fitzgerald told LifeSiteNews. “We have exposed her betrayals to our allies in our communications, the press, and meetings in her district.”

“We are displeased with Renee Ellmers not only for her backroom sabotage of the Pain Capable Bill last year, but also for her public dissent to the Marriage Amendment which 61% of North Carolina voters passed in 2012,” continued Fitzgerald. “She made no bones about opposing the amendment which constitutionalized marriage as only the union of a man and a woman.  She has betrayed conservatives on a number of issues, and we believe that she just doesn’t represent the values of her district.”

SBA List also has not endorsed in the primary. Dannenfelser told LifeSiteNews that her group was focused on patching up the damage Ellmers and her allies caused to getting pro-life legislation made into law. “SBA List and the pro-life movement refused to let Ellmers’ actions stand in the way of moving the Pain-Capable bill forward,” she said. “The House passed a stronger version of the bill, it received the support of 54 Senators in its first-ever vote in the upper chamber, and every Republican presidential candidate has pledged to support it. Building off of this victory, we worked tirelessly to successfully include defunding Planned Parenthood in the reconciliation bill, marking the first time in history defunding Planned Parenthood has been sent to a president’s desk. We must now win in November to keep the momentum going and finally enact these laws that will save lives.”