The story of how Donald Trump is dividing Republicans in strange ways can be told by his first endorsement of a GOP congressional candidate.
In a more traditional election year, losing those groups' support would be very bad news for a candidate like Ellmers; groups like the Club for Growth often lead the charge when it comes to unseating incumbents. But this is no traditional election cycle, and Ellmers thinks she has a secret weapon to fight back against the tea party: Donald Trump.
The Club for Growth spent millions against Trump in the presidential primary, and now Ellmers is bragging she was the first female member of Congress to endorse him. On Saturday, her campaign released a robo-call recorded by Trump. "I need her help in Washington so we can work together to defeat ISIS, secure our border and bring back jobs and frankly so many other things," he says on the call.
The Ellmers-Trump pairing underscores just how much Trump has muddied traditional conservative/establishment lines in the Republican Party, even flipping those definitions upside down. While Trump's positions on issues like immigration can certainly be described as extreme, he's now backing arguably the more moderate candidate in a North Carolina GOP primary. And faced with pressure from the right, Ellmers has become the rare GOP candidate to tout Trump, hoping to capitalize on his enthusiastic support.
(For what it's worth, Trump won North Carolina's presidential primary, including regions in Ellmers's old district. Ted Cruz, however, won most of the counties in her newly redrawn district.)
Of course, part of this is a strategy of necessity. With conservative groups aligning against her, it's probably Ellmers's best play at this point to embrace Trump. And Trump is certainly a willing participant, if it means sticking it to the Club for Growth, whom Trump has even accused of trying to extort him.
But the strategy makes sense. From Ellmers's point of view, the tea party groups have become the establishment, and Trump is the anti-establishment. She's the one bucking the party by supporting the party's nominee. It's kind of a microcosm on the presidential race, in which Cruz — a tea partier if there ever was one — became the establishment candidate simply by virtue of being Trump's only competition.
Ellmers has been taking heat for a while now. The Club for Growth has been airing ads since February attacking her. Ellmers has alienated some conservatives by holding up a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and not toeing the party line on immigration reform.
Now she's siding up with the guy who wants to build a wall on the border. And yet, Ellmers's decision to support Trump is indicative of her RINO tendencies, said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, in a recent interview.
"We weren't surprised," McIntosh said. "She's desperate to show 'I'm still a tea party person', so she's glomming onto [Trump]."
But it's an open question how much groups like the Club for Growth can sway Republican primary voters away from Trump. The millions that the Club for Growth spent to warn Republican voters that Trump was no conservative didn't pan out, for instance.
The dynamics in this congressional primary are a lot to wrap one's head around. And that's exactly the point. Trump's appeal doesn't easily fit into traditional Republican categories, and traditional Republican groups — even the anti-establishment ones — are struggling how to respond to these new, weird boundaries in their party.
In the winter, we talked a lot on The Fix about how Trump was bulldozing over the traditional lanes of the presidential primary, stealing supporters from the establishment, tea party, social conservative and libertarian lanes to build a mish-mash coalition that we hadn't seen in modern politics.
Now that he has the nomination, it looks like Trump isn't done bulldozing. If North Carolina's second congressional district is any indication, he's razing Republican barriers further downballot, too.