RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A state legislator aided by hardline conservatives on Capitol Hill won the Republican nomination Tuesday for the North Carolina congressional district seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Walter Jones Jr.
Voters in the 3rd District GOP primary runoff chose state Rep. Greg Murphy of Greenville over Kinston pediatrician Joan Perry, a first-time candidate backed by groups seeking to increase the number of Republican women in the House. They were the top vote-getters in the 17-candidate party primary in April, with Murphy finishing first but falling short of the threshold to avoid a runoff.
Murphy, a urologist serving in the legislature since 2015, won comfortably, according to unofficial results that show he performed strongly in balloting in his home county of Pitt. He now advances to the Sept. 10 special election to take on Democratic nominee Allen Thomas and two other candidates. That winner completes the remainder of Jones' two-year term.
Jones died in February after more than 24 years representing the Republican-leaning 3rd District, which now stretches from Greenville to the Outer Banks and includes military installations like Camp Lejeune. Agriculture, the military and medicine are among the largest industries in a district President Donald Trump won by 24 percentage points in 2016. About 11.5% of qualified voters in the 17-county 3rd District race cast ballots, according to the State Board of Elections.
Washington-based political committees spent well over $1 million to support one or the other of the two conservative candidates in the runoff. Each campaign or its supporting groups ran attack ads accusing the opponent of liberal tendencies and questioning the opponent's commitment to President Donald Trump's agenda.
Murphy's campaign had outraised Perry entering the campaign's final days, but independent expenditure groups backing Perry eliminated any gap.
Murphy's victory is a win for the House Freedom Caucus and for its chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a close ally of Trump in Congress. Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding Freedom Caucus member, campaigned with Murphy.
Murphy said Perry's support from Washington-based PACs showed she was aligned with the "swamp." Meadows vouched for Murphy, saying in a TV ad he was "100% confident" that Murphy would have Trump's back if elected to Congress.
Murphy said in a release that voters saw through the rhetoric of "Washington-style politics" that attempted to disparage him.
"I hope it sends a message to the next group that tries to buy any election in eastern North Carolina," Murphy said. "Tonight's results show that these folks' votes are not for sale."
Perry's defeat is a setback for those seeking to boost the number of Republican women in the House. The 13 who now serve there represent a 25-year-low. The Winning for Women Action Fund ran ads supporting Perry and attacking Murphy. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin also endorsed Perry.
"We took a political outsider with no name recognition and helped elevate her through a field of 17 candidates into a two-person runoff," Winning for Women Executive Director Rebecca Schuller said in a release. "Primary support is critical to electing more women."
Perry and Murphy largely agreed on most issues, including support for the construction of a U.S.-Mexico wall. Both strongly oppose abortion.
Perry and her allies tried to draw differences with Murphy on a bill he had sponsored earlier this year in the state House that would expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults through the federal health care law.
Murphy won despite Jones' widow giving support to Perry. While stopping short of a full endorsement, Joe Anne Jones said Perry's integrity and religious faith are similar to those of the late congressman.
The late congressman was considered a conservative maverick willing to vote against his party and GOP presidents, including Trump.