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This Southern Republican Backed Immigration Reform and Lived to Tell About It

Anti-immigration groups vowed to defeat Rep. Renee Elmers as punishment for supporting a reform bill. But she beat back a primary challenger handily—with some outside support.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty

Rep. Renee Ellmers, the nurse turned North Carolina congresswoman, was a top House target for anti-immigration groups looking to knock off a rare pro-reform House Republican in a GOP primary this year. Beat Ellmers, the thinking went, and teach the rest of the party a lesson.

But on Tuesday night, Ellmers easily beat back a challenge from Frank Roche, a businessman and perennial political candidate who had made Ellmers’s support for immigration reform the centerpiece of his effort to oust her. The race had attracted national attention as a test case of a GOP incumbent facing a conservative primary electorate in the wake of declaring support for an immigration reform bill that would support a path to legal status but not citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

In the end, Ellmers won the primary with 58.72 percent of the vote, three points greater than her margin in the 2012 GOP primary, even after withering attacks from Laura Ingraham,, NumbersUSA, ALIPAC, and local Tea Party groups, specifically for her immigration stance.

A potentially key piece to Ellmers’s victory was a $250,000 expenditure by Americans for a Conservative Direction, an affiliate of, , the 501(c)(4) cofounded by tech giants including Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker, and Bill Gates to pass immigration reform.

“We wanted to send a signal to folks that if you stand up and do the right thing, we’re going to be there for you,” said Brian Walsh, a consultant for Americans for a Conservative Direction. “She had the courage early on to support immigration reform. I think she would have won anyway, but we wanted to give her support.”

Walsh said the group’s ads were designed to “set the record straight” after Ellmers got into an epic on-air smackdown with Ingraham over immigration reform in which Ellmers called Ingraham ignorant on the issue and Ingraham repeatedly accused Ellmers of supporting amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

The group aired hundreds of thousands of dollars of ads to refute the accusation, a massive ad buy considering Roche raised just $24,000 for his entire campaign and never went up on television. But Walsh said the move was designed to send a larger message.

“It was important for those folks who are standing up to do the right thing to know that their allies are there to support them,” he said. “And Tuesday night’s result was a clear sign that a majority of voters are opposed to keeping the status quo of a broken system.”

Along with the outside spending in the race, Ellmers raised more than $950,000 on her own and spent about $650,000. She’ll need the leftover funds for her general election matchup, which looks likely to be against American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, who led his opponent by fewer than 400 votes as of Wednesday.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-reform group, said Ellmers’s victory has implications well beyond her district.

“John Boehner and company are afraid to bring up immigration because RedState and Laura Ingraham say that their base will be upset, but where is the evidence?” Sharry said. “The anti-immigration forces are loud but not large. Renee Ellmers was under attack, and she wins by a bigger margin than two years ago. That says something to me.”

Sharry pointed to other fizzling primaries as a sign that the anti-reform movement is simply not as powerful as feared by congressional leadership.

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“This year, you have Ellmers being attacked by Laura Ingraham and primaries against Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander,” he said. “They’re all based on immigration, and they’re all going nowhere.”