EMERALD ISLE, N.C. — The Republican candidate who has the best chance of adding to the party’s dwindling ranks of women in the House insists she’s running on her own merits, not her gender.
But in the GOP primary runoff for the special election in North Carolina’s 3rd District, pediatrician Joan Perry subtly argues that her gender is an important part of why she’s the real outsider candidate running for Congress.
“There’s never been a woman physician in the Republican Party in Congress,” Perry told a middle-aged woman who answered the door Saturday when the candidate went door-knocking in this beachfront community.
That’s a line that Perry repeats to both male and female voters — and it’s one that seemed to resonate, even with a few men who had backed one of the other 16 candidates in the first round of the primary for this open seat. Finishing second in that April race, Perry requested the July 9 runoff against first-place finisher state Rep. Greg Murphy, also a doctor, who failed to surpass 30 percent of the vote.
Like many other GOP primaries, a key part of this contest hinges on who is most supportive of President Donald Trump. And on that front, Murphy has a powerful ally in North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus and has a close relationship with the president. Meadows was campaigning with Murphy all weekend. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the caucus’s former chairman, was with him in the district the previous weekend.
From a national perspective, the runoff to find a Republican successor to the late Rep. Walter B. Jones, who died in February, is a power struggle between the Freedom Caucus and all 13 Republican women in the House (including the sole woman in the Freedom Caucus). A growing cadre of male lawmakers also wants to add another woman to their conference — or at least deprive the Freedom Caucus of another member.
On the ground, voter-to-voter contact is critical in the final two weeks of what’s likely to be a low-turnout runoff in a coastal district still recovering from last September’s Hurricane Florence.
Also watch: Here’s Carol Miller’s advice for GOP women thinking of running for office
A rare opportunity
Republicans have traditionally struggled to get women through primaries, and in last year’s midterms, Democrats unseated a handful of female GOP incumbents. So there’s excitement about electing a woman from a seat Trump carried by 23 points, who can survive future Democratic waves and, theoretically, climb into leadership.
And even though the National Republican Congressional Committee has a policy of not playing in primaries, party leadership seems to be thinking differently about this race.
“We have this mindset, ‘Oh, I don’t want to play in primaries.’ You don’t want to play primaries, you’re not going to change the course of history,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week at a reception held by Winning for Women in Washington, where the GOP outside group rolled out its goal of electing 20 women in 2020.
“We will never be a majority party if we don’t achieve this. We won’t even come close. Even if we achieve this, there’s a chance we won’t be a majority,” McCarthy added.
Winning for Women’s campaign arm is one of the major players in this race, spending on a TV spot that calls Murphy a “typical politician.”
North Carolina Rep. George Holding, a cousin of Perry’s by marriage, had been the only male Republican backing her. But that’s beginning to change. Perry has now picked up checks from Reps. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, Andy Barr of Kentucky, Fred Upton of Michigan, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri, Drew Ferguson of Georgia and Steve Stivers of Ohio, a former NRCC chairman.
The two doctors
Facing off against Murphy, a urologic surgeon whose campaign slogan has long been “It’s good to have a doctor in the House,” Perry is foregrounding her experience as a pediatrician and a mom to five boys, especially when she talks about her opposition to abortion.
“I took down a deer, shot my limit of doves and had a baby all in the same day,” she says in her most recent spot.
Many of her ads show her in a white doctor’s coat, and she frequently hits Murphy for having supported a version of Medicaid expansion that even Meadows said he wouldn’t have supported.
A self-described tomboy growing up, Perry started doing triathlons at age 36 and has competed in several world championships.
“I don’t do frumpy stuff,” she told the owner of a boutique clothing shop in New Bern, who helped her look for tailored outfits.
Murphy, who’s often called in to perform surgery over the weekends, did not have time for questions when approached Saturday at the end of an event with Meadows. He also was not available by phone the rest of the weekend.
“I can assure you the swamp won’t change me,” he says in one of his recent spots, explaining that he wants to make Congress less powerful. He has the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and has been touting the backing of former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum.
His ads attack Perry for having appeared in a TV spot for former Rep. Mike McIntyre, a conservative Democrat who was a close college friend of Perry and her husband, Jimbo. He also criticizes her for not being quick enough to support Trump’s national emergency declaration to deal with migrants at the southern border.
An insult to women?
Potentially undercutting Perry’s message, Murphy also has the backing of a group called Women for Trump, which is headed by Amy Kremer, a failed candidate in the GOP primary for Georgia’s 6th District special election in 2017.
“I want more women in Congress, but it has to be the right woman,” Kremer said after campaigning with Meadows and Murphy at the Holiday Trav-L-Park Resort, an oceanfront campground on Emerald Isle. She said it was “sexist” and an “insult” to assume women would support candidates with “the same body parts.”
“If that were the case, we would have supported Hillary Clinton,” Kremer said, holding her dog, a white teacup Maltipoo.
“And the money that’s being poured into this race and using the woman card — saying that the GOP is doomed with women if she doesn’t win this race — that’s a bunch of BS,” she added.
Reached by phone later in the day, Meadows agreed, pointing out that the House Freedom Fund has supported female candidates in the past and that he hopes to partner with some of the forces boosting Republican women in future races.
Stefanik has said that she would back female candidates, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum, but that they need to be qualified. She did not, for example, endorse a woman in North Carolina’s 9th District who had significant outside support from the Realtors’ PAC.
Besides Winning for Women, Perry has the backing of Susan B. Anthony List and FreedomWorks. Several of the losing candidates from the April primary, including third-place finisher Phil Shepard, have backed her. Saturday’s door-knocking kickoff for Perry was at the Emerald Isle home of Celeste Cairns, who was the choice of the Club for Growth during the first round.
The club has not spent in the runoff. But Awake Carolina, a super PAC that was working with the club during the first round, is now sending mailers attacking Perry as a “Democrat in disguise.” Similarly, a TV spot from House Freedom Action calls her “liberal Joan Perry.”
The Perry campaign, however, got a boost last week when Joe Anne Jones, the widow of the late congressman, came out to say that her husband wouldn’t have endorsed publicly in the race, and neither would she. She thanked Murphy for having once saved her husband’s life, but said that he and Perry were “kindred spirits” because of their faith.
“She’s the same type of person,” Jones said. “I recognize one when I see one.”
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.