WASHINGTON -- State Rep. Greg Murphy has won the Republican nomination in North Carolina's heavily red 3rd District, making him the strong favorite to succeed the late Walter B. Jones, who died in February.
Murphy, who was backed by the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus, defeated pediatrician Joan Perry in a low-turnout primary runoff Tuesday that attracted more than $1 million in spending from outside groups dedicated to electing GOP women. With 56% of precincts reporting, Murphy was leading Perry 64% to 36% when The Associated Press called the race.
Perry's defeat is a loss for Republican women's groups, such as Winning for Women and Susan B. Anthony List, which were hoping to add another woman to the 13 who are currently in the 197-member House GOP conference. All the female Republicans in the House, including the sole woman in the House Freedom Caucus, backed Perry, as did eight GOP men. Perry's defeat is also a loss for House Republicans more closely aligned with leadership, who didn't want to see the Freedom Caucus pick up another member.
Murphy will face off against Democrat Allen Thomas in the Sept. 10 general election. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican. This will be the first time in 24 years that the 3rd District has new representation. Jones was first elected in 1994. His father had represented a similar area for about 26 years before that.
Murphy and his allies were outspent, but as an elected official, he ran with a built-in constituency that Perry did not have. A urologic surgeon, he's been elected to the state House twice from Pitt County -- one of the 17 counties in this Eastern North Carolina district. Murphy finished first among 17 candidates in the April 30 primary, followed by Perry, who was able to request the runoff because Murphy did not surpass 30% of the vote.
Perhaps the biggest boost to Murphy came from the Freedom Caucus' current chairman, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, and its former chairman, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who both campaigned for Murphy in the district.
Meadows has described his connection to Murphy as a personal relationship. And although the Freedom Caucus chairman has admitted that he and Murphy have some differences of opinion on policy -- Meadows would not have backed a version of Medicaid expansion that Murphy supported, for example -- Meadows was vocal about Murphy being the better choice for the district. Meadows has said Murphy will be a member of the invitation-only Freedom Caucus if he's in Congress.
House Freedom Action spent about $230,000 for Murphy, which paled in comparison to the outside spending that boosted Perry. Meadows, who dominated much of Murphy's first TV ad, is a powerful ally of President Donald Trump, who did not endorse in this race.
In a district that backed Trump by 23 points in 2016, perceived loyalty to the president was a salient factor in the race.
Meadows and Jordan appeared together on Fox News the day before the runoff.
"He's willing to fight for this president," Meadows said about Murphy in an interview with host Sean Hannity.
Most of the ads in the race were about each candidate proving they'd be the president's strongest ally and questioning the other's support for Trump.
Murphy and his allies seized on Perry's appearance in a 2012 spot for former North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre, a conservative Democrat who opposed abortion and was running for re-election with the backing of the National Rifle Association. An ad from House Freedom Action, for example, slammed Perry as "liberal" and accused her of helping a "Pelosi Democrat." (McIntyre did not vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker after winning reelection.) Murphy's backers also knocked Perry for not being quick enough to support Trump's emergency declaration for the border wall.
The ads from Perry's backers questioned Murphy's loyalty to Trump. They went after his support for a version of Medicaid expansion. Anti-Murphy ads also tried to paint him as a supporter of the 2010 health care law, using part of his quote from a local TV interview to suggest he was praising "Obamacare."
Perry represented the GOP's best chance this year of adding another woman to its House conference, which is down from 23 women in the previous session of Congress.
Despite the party recruiting more than 100 women to run in 2018, just one new female Republican made it to the House in last fall's midterms. Many more GOP women have already come forward this year to express interest in running for Congress. But for Republicans who care about electing women, last year's failures highlighted a frequent trouble spot for GOP women: primaries.
Winning for Women, which was founded during the 2018 cycle, invested heavily for Perry. Its super PAC, WFW Action Fund, said it spent nearly $900,000 for Perry. That's significantly more than the group spent in primaries during the 2018 cycle, when it most often made five-figure digital buys for women in primaries.
Winning for Women and other Republicans who work to elect GOP women were hoping a victory in this race would send a positive message about the party's commitment to electing women in 2020. There was a special excitement about nominating a woman in a safe Republican seat, where Perry wouldn't be susceptible to partisan waves such as last year's, which knocked out many of the female GOP incumbents.
But New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who rebranded her leadership PAC after the 2018 midterms to play in primaries for women, has maintained that if Perry lost, this race would still have sent an important message to other GOP women considering running: "There is a cavalry," Stefanik said at a Winning for Women reception in Washington last month.
Still, the party's inability to elect a woman, despite significant outside spending, raises questions about the political durability of a party that no longer reflects the American electorate. And even though the House GOP campaign arm has an official policy of not playing in primaries, that's clearly something House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is thinking about.
"We will never be a majority party if we don't achieve this. We won't even come close," McCarthy said at the same Winning for Women reception, where the group rolled out its goal of electing 20 women in 2020. "Even if we achieve this, there's a chance we won't be a majority."
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