A North Carolina runoff Tuesday was widely seen as a test of the GOP’s ability to elect more women in the Trump era — and Republicans failed.
Despite having an impressive war chest and the backing of every single female Republican in the House — now down to just 13 — doctor Joan Perry was trounced by fellow physician Greg Murphy to capture the party’s nomination for the House special election.
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Perry, however, was up against some powerful forces in the GOP, with Trump’s conservative House allies Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio supporting Murphy. And Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, recorded robo-calls on Murphy’s behalf.
That made the nearly-20 point loss sting even more for House Republican women, who are desperate to rebuild their ranks and frustrated that some of their male colleagues are actively working against them. And with Trump at the top of the ticket next year, the push to elect more GOP women and attract more women voters into the party will only get tougher.
“People are going to have to make this a priority,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who has made boosting female candidates her personal mission, told POLITICO. “If they think it’s important to have more women in the conference, people are going to need to step up and make those investments.”
“I wish there were more colleagues who supported Joan Perry,” she added.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who did not get involved in the race, said it was encouraging that Perry snagged as many endorsements as she did, given that it was a runoff for a special election. Eight GOP male lawmakers supported Perry’s campaign.
“I think people are going to have to do more, yes,” McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. “But… a lot of people don’t normally get involved in primaries. It was a very telling case that she got so many people to endorse her.”
While some Republicans argued that too much shouldn’t be read into the results of a single special election, Tuesday’s race is now the second instance this year where a female GOP candidate has failed to emerge victorious from a primary.
In a different special congressional election in North Carolina earlier this year, one of the leading female candidates, Leigh Brown, was beat out by the state senator who sponsored North Carolina’s controversial “bathroom bill” in 2016.
The back-to-back primary losses have raised questions about the GOP base’s willingness to promote women and what strategies party leaders should deploy beyond throwing money at races.
Winning for Women, one of the outside groups that was heavily involved in the race, is now seeking a meeting with GOP leadership to discuss how to move forward as they gear up for the 2020 election cycle.
“I’m very disappointed. I always wish that people would play more in primaries,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who has actively sought to help the GOP elect more women. “But you can’t take this stuff personally.”
Tuesday’s matchup in a solid red district had become a proxy war among Washington Republicans, which exposed a broader gender rift in the GOP conference. The House Republican women presented a united front in support of Perry and outside groups dedicated to electing female candidates poured over $1 million into the race.
But hard-line conservatives rallied around Murphy, who is expected to join the House Freedom Caucus if elected. Meadows and Jordan, ring-leaders of the conservative group and some of Trump’s top allies on Capitol Hill, threw their weight behind Murphy. The Freedom Caucus’ electoral arm spent $236,000 on ads opposing Perry and painting Murphy as the anti-establishment candidate ready to fight against “the gators in the swamp.”
Murphy’s supporters felt that was an unfair characterization, given her opposition to abortion rights and support of a border wall, though Perry did not promise to join the Freedom Caucus if elected.
“I’m pretty confident that Joan Perry was in fact the more conservative candidate,” Stefanik said. “And I was surprised in terms of how significant the Freedom Caucus prioritized this race.”
Meadows pointed out in an interview that the Freedom Caucus has endorsed a number of female candidates, including Yvette Harrell of New Mexico, the group’s first recruit of the 2020 cycle. He also dismissed the notion that the race was about gender.
“Ms. Stefanik and I have never had a conversation about potential Republican nominees from North Carolina,” Meadows said. “It is widely known that the Freedom Caucus recruits and is active in supporting candidates that represent the forgotten man and woman.”
“Hopefully we will be able to find a candidate that meets House Freedom Fund’s selection criteria and her PAC’s selection criteria in the future,” he added.
Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, head of recruitment efforts for the House GOP’s campaign arm, said it wasn’t the Freedom Caucus support that swayed that race. She argued that Murphy just has stronger name recognition in the district as a representative in the North Carolina General Assembly.
But Brooks acknowledged that it will be challenging for first-time women candidates to break through without already having some political foothold.
“It is a part of a broader issue,” said Brooks, who is retiring, even as she tries to recruit more women to run for office. “We have to do better as a party at the local level.”
Then there’s the other problem that Republicans are far less willing to talk about: Trump.
Suburban female voters fled the GOP in the 2018 midterms, with their support for Trump plummeting. At the same time, a handful of Republican women either lost their reelection bids or retired. It was particularly tough for female GOP lawmakers as they watched the number of Democratic women surge to a record high in the House.
After losing the White House in 2012, the GOP’s autopsy report concluded that the party needed to improve its standing with women and minorities. But House Republicans have yet to perform an autopsy on the 2018 midterms, and it seems unlikely they ever will.
Meanwhile, there are signs that Trump is still facing a massive gender gap: The latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, conducted late last month, found that 57 percent of women voters would “definitely” or “probably” vote against Trump in 2020.
“We have to work very hard as Republicans to convince more women to run for office, but also to convince more women to vote for us,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking Republican in the House. “Attracting women voters is crucial.”
Cheney is considering running for an open Senate seat in Wyoming — a move that would diminish the ranks of House GOP women even further.
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.