On its face, the campaign between urologist Greg Murphy of Greenville and Kinston pediatrician Joan Perry. Jones died in February after 24 years representing the 3rd Congressional District.
While the two candidates have very similar platforms, the runoff has evolved into a battle among Washington-based independent expenditure committees and well-known Republican lawmakers seeking to fashion candidate differences to sway voters.
Murphy, a state representative, got the most votes among 17 GOP candidates in the April 30 primary, but failed to get above the 30% threshold to win outright. The second-place Perry, a former member of the University of North Carolina’s governing board, quickly requested the runoff.
Tuesday’s winner will advance to the general election in the 3rd District, which stretches from the Virginia border and the Outer Banks to the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, and inland to Greenville. Agriculture, the military and medicine are among the largest industries in a district President Donald Trump won by 24 percentage points in 2016.
Democrat Allen Thomas, a former Greenville mayor who won his April primary, and Libertarian and Constitutional Party candidates, also will run in the Sept. 10 election.
Super PACs and outside groups have spent well over $1 million for or against the GOP runoff candidates, with some airing television ads accusing one or the other of failing to adequately support Trump’s agenda or being “liberal.” The barometer on support for Trump contrasts with Jones, who was known as a conservative maverick willing to oppose Trump and other Republicans.
Right-leaning women’s political groups spent the most backing Perry in the campaign’s final days, overcoming the fundraising advantage that Murphy’s campaign had over his rival through mid-June. At least one group sees the race as an opportunity to slowly increase the number of Republican female House members. The 13 remaining after the 2018 elections is at a 25-year-low.
Perry “has proven to be the true conservative in this race, and she’s the kind of representative that the people of North Carolina deserve,” said Rebecca Schuller of the Winning for Women Action Fund, which counted spending more than $700,000 on ads, mailers and phone banks. The fund’s parent organization is aiming to increase the number of Republican women to 20 in 2020.
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin also has endorsed Perry. Murphy’s supporters include Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and a close ally of Trump in Congress. Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding Freedom Caucus member, have campaigned with Murphy. The Women for Trump group endorsed Murphy.
“I can think of no person that will have the president’s back more than Greg Murphy,” Meadows says in a Murphy campaign ad. An arm of the Freedom Caucus is also spending money to oppose Perry.
During a recent debate, Perry and Murphy largely agreed on the issues discussed, taking hard lines on immigration and supporting construction of a U.S.-Mexico wall. Both are strongly opposed to abortion.
Perry attempts to differentiate herself from Murphy as a first-time candidate and on health-related issues.
While Murphy has sponsored a measure at the state legislature that would expand Medicaid to cover hundreds of thousands of additional low-income people, Perry said she’s opposed to the idea.
“I just think that’s not fiscally prudent,” Perry said in a recent interview, saying Murphy’s views suggest his willingness to expand entitlement spending should he go to Congress. Murphy said the expansion legislation has a conservative bent by requiring patient premiums and work requirements. It also wouldn’t be funded by state tax revenues.
Murphy said Perry is the one who hasn’t stuck to Republican principles or with Trump. An ad cited her previous support for then-Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre and suggested she lacked full-throated support for Trump’s emergency declaration for a border wall.
“She’s already aligned herself as being part of the establishment,” Murphy said in an interview.
The race could hinge on whether support for Perry by Jones’ widow last month is important to voters.
While stopping short of a full endorsement at a news conference, Joe Anne Jones called Perry and her husband “kindred spirits,” citing their integrity and religious faith. Jones said that while she was grateful to Murphy for being her husband’s surgeon, “that doesn’t have anything to do with politics.”