Voters in eastern North Carolina are heading to the polls Tuesday for a low-profile special election with a lot at stake.
Regardless of who wins the Republican primary runoff, the 3rd District seat formerly held by the late Rep. Walter B. Jones will almost certainly remain in GOP hands after the special general election on Sept. 10. But the outcome of Tuesday’s internecine contest could say a lot about how the GOP approaches identity politics heading into 2020.
On the national stage, this primary between two Republican doctors has become a proxy war between two competing — and sometimes, overlapping — interests in Washington, D.C.
State Rep. Greg Murphy, a urological surgeon, has the backing of the political arm of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus. The group’s current chairman, North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, and its former chairman, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, have both campaigned for him in the district.
But all 13 Republican women in the House, including the sole female member of the Freedom Caucus, have sided with pediatrician Joan Perry, who represents the House GOP’s best chance of adding another woman to its conference. Seven male Republican lawmakers have also contributed to Perry, perhaps because they too want another woman in the House or because they’d like to deprive the Freedom Caucus of another member — or both.
Even though the National Republican Congressional Committee doesn’t play in primaries, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy used strong language at a reception last month hosted by one of the outside groups backing Perry about the necessity of playing in primaries to increase diversity in his party — and to have any shot of reclaiming the House majority.
All of that makes this race a test for outside groups that do play in primaries — specifically those that support Republican women, which have spent more than $1 million on this race.
Winning for Women, which was founded during the 2018 cycle that saw Republicans elect just one new woman to the House, has been a major player in this primary. The group’s super PAC, Winning for Women Action Fund, said it has spent nearly $900,000 supporting Perry and opposing Murphy. Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion candidates, was the first outside group to back Perry. Its super PAC has spent about $347,000 on the race.
“We need to refresh our troops in the House of Representatives,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser told CQ Roll Call on Monday.
Republicans are particularly excited about the chance to elect a woman from a safe GOP seat.
“The thing that we have to realize is, you don’t want to just find women or minorities in swing seats,” McCarthy said at last month’s Winning for Women reception in Washington. “We need them in seats like mine. Why? Because then they can be in leadership. That transforms the party.”
Murphy’s backers say they too would like to see more women in the House, but they’re wary of identity politics.
Dannenfelser, who grew up in the 3rd District, agrees that “the content of character and principles is most important.” Her organization once backed a Republican man over a Republican woman in another North Carolina primary in which both candidates opposed abortion rights.
“At the same time, women and men have different and complementary talents to add,” Dannenfelser said. “When it comes to the abortion issue, there is no arguing that this affects women uniquely because they have babies.”
In their advertising, the groups backing Perry haven’t made her gender an explicit part of why she’s the best candidate. Instead, they’ve attacked Murphy’s support for a version of Medicaid expansion and tried to spin some of his comments about the 2010 health care law as him praising “Obamacare” to argue that he’s the less conservative of the two.
Although Murphy’s campaign has spent more than Perry’s, the spending from outside groups on her behalf has dwarfed the spending from outside groups for him. House Freedom Action and a super PAC called Awake Carolina have spent close to $300,000 for Murphy. He and his allies have hit Perry for once having appeared in a TV spot for former North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre, a conservative Democrat who was a close college friend of Perry’s, and for not being quick enough to support President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration to deal with migrants at the southern border.
Perry has the tacit endorsement of Joe Anne Jones, whose husband held the seat at the time of his death in February. Walter B. Jones had represented the military-heavy district since 1995, while his father represented a similar area in Congress for about 26 years before that, so it was significant for Jones’ widow to say last month that Perry and her late husband were “kindred spirits.”
Perry has also picked up public endorsements and behind-the-scenes support from a handful of the other 16 candidates who ran in the initial April 30 primary.
But as an elected official, Murphy, the top vote-getter in that primary, began this race with a constituent base and name recognition that Perry did not have.
Perry has used her political inexperience as an advantage. As her husband, Jimbo, is fond of saying, she can’t go anywhere in the district without running into a family whose children she’s cared for. Even in its paid communications, Perry’s team is leaning into her work as a pediatrician, often showing her in a white doctor’s coat, or as in her most recent spot, with one of the young children she’s treated.
On the trail, Perry speaks subtly about her gender, using it to underscore her outsider status.
“There’s never been a woman physician in the Republican Party in Congress,” she told voters when knocking on doors last month.
Murphy has had plenty of patients too, including Jones, the late congressman. But the biggest ally in his corner is Meadows, who appeared in his first TV ad, arguing that the state representative is the better of the two GOP doctors to send to Congress.
Meadows is on camera for two-thirds of the 60-second spot, which is twice the length of most campaign TV ads. It might not have made for a well-produced spot, but the Murphy campaign sees Meadows as an effective surrogate, especially when it comes to the most important player in this race: Trump.
The president hasn’t endorsed in the election and won’t be holding his next rally in the district until later this month, after the runoff. But with both candidates fighting over who would be more faithful to him, he’s an omnipresent force in the race.
“I can speak to that probably better than anybody, being probably one of the president’s top allies on Capitol Hill,” Meadows said in a phone interview from the district last month. “I need somebody that’s willing to be that ally on Capitol Hill. And I’m confident that there’s no equivocation on that point with Dr. Murphy.”
But Perry’s allies are up with the same message.
“Joan Perry is a steadfast supporter of President Trump,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich says in robocalls and radio ads that started on Saturday and are paid for by Winning for Women Action Fund.
“If you support President Trump, this Tuesday, July 9, vote for true conservative Dr. Joan Perry,” the narrator concludes.