The first special election primary of the year is heading into overtime, with two of the 17 Republicans in North Carolina’s 3rd District advancing to a July 9 runoff for a seat that’s likely to remain in GOP hands.
State Rep. Greg Murphy and pediatrician Joan Perry led the multi-candidate field, but since neither surpassed the 30 percent threshold to avoid a runoff, the race continues. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Murphy was in first place with 22.5 percent of the vote, followed by Perry with 15.4 percent, according to the Associated Press.
Former Greenville mayor Allen Thomas avoided a runoff on the Democratic side by taking 50 percent, far outpacing the five other candidates. He defeated retired Marine Col. Richard “Otter” Bew, who came in second with 25 percent.
Thomas will have two extra months to campaign for the general election while Murphy and Perry duke it out. The eventual Republican nominee will face Thomas in a Sept. 10 election to fill the seat of the late Walter B. Jones, who died in February.
Perry’s advancement to the runoff is a success for GOP women’s groups, which are trying to help more female Republicans through primaries, especially now that the House GOP conference is down to just 13 women. Susan B. Anthony List’s super PAC had spent about $86,000 on Perry’s behalf as of April 26, while Winning for Women Action Fund spent $200,000 for her through April 23. That’s significantly more than the relatively new group spent for women in primaries during the 2018 cycle.
"The fact that Dr. Perry, a political outsider, earned enough votes for a runoff proves that voters have an appetite for electing qualified Republican women and that critical primary support will help get them there," Winning for Women executive director Rebecca Schuller said in a statement Tuesday night.
"We're proud that Dr. Perry was our first endorsement, and we look forward to getting her over the finish line," Schuller added.
Tuesday’s results are a loss for the Club for Growth, normally a heavy hitter in GOP primaries in safe seats. The club’s pick won a similarly crowded 17-person primary in North Carolina’s 13th District three years ago. But its candidate in this race, accountant Celeste Cairns, came in ninth. The club spent about $200,000 boosting Cairns and worked with a super PAC called Awake Carolina that spent another $100,000 for her.
Murphy, a urologic surgeon from Pitt County, was long considered to be the closest thing to a front-runner. By the end of the pre-primary reporting period, he had raised and spent the most. He had loaned his campaign $50,000. Perry had loaned her campaign $30,000.
Despite a personally close relationship with North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, who convinced Murphy (and others) to get into the race, Murphy was attacked as an establishment pick who sponsored an alternative version of Medicaid expansion in the state.
Members of the North Carolina delegation stayed out of the GOP primary, saying they had no plans to get involved at least until the runoff. Perry picked up endorsement from Republican female members from other states. Missouri Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Ann Wagner, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith all donated to her for the primary. Murphy had the financial backing of Florida Rep. Neal Dunn.
On the Democratic side, North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield backed Thomas, who loaned his own campaign $200,000. Excluding that loan, Bew raised more money for the primary. He had national support among Democrats who thought he brought the same military profile to a Trump district as many of the party’s winners in 2018. Veterans of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee were running Bew’s campaign, and his military background earned him a New York Times profile ahead of the primary.
Thomas earned some negative headlines in the final days of the race. A report from the state auditor’s office last week criticized how the executive director of North Carolina Global TransPark — who was Thomas then — oversaw its internal accounting. The report did not mention Thomas by name, but it could resurface in future GOP attacks on the candidate.