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Could this be the primary where outside GOP groups help women win?

Female Republicans in North Carolina's 3rd District earn endorsements from super PACs

A voter arrives at the Philomont, Va fire station in Virginia's 10th Congressional district, Rep. Barbara Comstock's district, on primary election day in Virginia on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A voter arrives at the Philomont, Va fire station in Virginia's 10th Congressional district, Rep. Barbara Comstock's district, on primary election day in Virginia on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans’ biggest problem electing women has been in primaries.

But in the first special election primary of the year, where 17 Republicans are vying next week for the nod in North Carolina’s 3rd District, the two candidates who have attracted the most significant outside support are women.

For a party that has just 13 women in the House — down from 23 in the previous Congress — that’s a big deal, and a potentially pivotal moment for Republican outside groups experimenting with putting real money behind women in primaries. 

But in a crowded race with anticipated low turnout, there’s no guarantee that spending from outside groups — which have to pay higher TV advertising rates than candidates — will make the difference, especially in a cheap media market where many candidates are on cable and some are on broadcast.

Voting for anyone new in this eastern North Carolina district is going to be a change. Walter B. Jones Jr., who was elected to his 13th term last fall, died in February. Aside from a single two-year term in the early 1990s, a Jones had represented North Carolina in Congress since 1966, when Jones’ father came to the House.

A vacancy in a district President Donald Trump carried by 24 points in 2016 generated interest from lots of ambitious Republicans (and a few Democrats) hoping to replace Jones, who ran unopposed last fall. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

None of the Republicans are likely to pass the 30 percent threshold in next Tuesday’s primary. So the top two finishers would advance to a July runoff, followed by a September general election. 

From the archives: Walter Jones’ salute to the troops

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 Women with outside support

Club for Growth Action endorsed accountant Celeste Cairns last week and is spending about $200,000 on radio, digital and TV ads for her. It’s working with a super PAC called Awake Carolina that’s spending about $100,000 on TV ads for Cairns. The club’s TV ads will air midweek, after Awake Carolina’s go off the air. 

For a first-time candidate, getting a $300,000 advertising boost is a powerful injection in a crowded race that could come down to name recognition. 

The club has always been a major player in GOP primaries, especially in safe Republican seats. Its endorsement boosted future Rep. Ted Budd in a 17-candidate GOP primary in North Carolina’s 13th District three years ago. But the club is not known for trying to advance diversity in the GOP; ideology rather than identity has always been a more salient factor. 

Ironically, in a Texas primary last year, the club did back a woman —  Republican fundraiser Bunni Pounds — against the eventual winner, Rep. Lance Gooden, who is Cairns’ cousin.

Cairns raised nearly $100,000 through April 18. She has financial support from former California Rep. Mimi Walters, Georgia Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter and Gooden. Cairns lives in Carteret County now but moved around overseas often as her husband served in the Army Special Forces. 

Pediatrician Joan Perry has been in practice in the area for 30 years, giving her what some backers believe is a stronger connection to the district. Perry earned an early endorsement from the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List and its affiliated super PAC, Women Speak Out, which reported spending about $50,000 on digital and mail. 

Winning for Women, a relatively new group dedicated to helping elect GOP women, made its first independent expenditures last year. But its five-figure digital ads for female candidates were often too little too late in 2018 primaries. Even where its candidate did win — such as in West Virginia’s 3rd District — it’s hard to see how such a small investment made the difference for now-Rep. Carol Miller in the GOP primary.

But Winning for Women has made a more significant investment in North Carolina’s 3rd District this year, announcing a six-figure TV, radio and mail campaign for Perry.  

“The midterm elections presented a harsh truth — qualified Republican women will continue to fall through the cracks, particularly in primaries, unless they get the support they need from start to finish,” the group’s executive director, Rebecca Schuller, said in a statement Monday.

“NC-03 is our first opportunity to prove that Republicans are serious about playing in primaries to elect more women, and we look forward to continuing to lead this effort,” she added.

Perry raised $182,000 through April 20, including a $30,000 personal loan. She’s received financial support from Missouri Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Ann Wagner, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith

The third woman in the primary is Michele Nix, a former vice chairwoman of the state GOP. She raised $48,000 by April 10, the end of the pre-special reporting period.

“I’m glad there are multiple women in this race,” said Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW PAC, which is backing Perry. “It’s a weird problem for us to have.”

The rest of the field

State Rep. Greg Murphy was long considered to be the closest thing to a front-runner. He raised $336,000, including a $50,000 personal loan, through April 22. By the end of the pre-primary reporting period, he had raised and spent the most.

Murphy is personally close to North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, who convinced him (and others) to get into the race. But conservatives have attacked Murphy as an establishment pick who sponsored an alternative version of Medicaid expansion in the state. 

Lenoir County Commissioner Eric Rouse, a businessman who loaned his campaign $100,000, was the first candidate on TV. His ads show him skeet shooting, with clays labeled Green New Deal and government health care. 

Retired Marine Corps Col. Francis De Luca, the former president of the conservative Civitas Institute, has been fundraising off the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report. He’d raised nearly $130,000 through April 17.

“Stand with me and President Trump to call out the Democrats’ witchhunt,” he wrote in a recent email to supporters. 

Chimer Clark touts himself as “tough enough to stand with Trump,” and has argued in forums that he won’t follow in Jones’ footsteps as a Republican who bucks his own party.

Businessman Jeff Moore, who served in former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, has the backing of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and the National Association for Gun Rights. 

State Rep. Michael Speciale, the founder of the state House Freedom Caucus, is known for making controversial and offensive comments. Other public office-holders running include state Rep. Phil Shepard and Currituck County commissioners Paul Beaumont and Mike Payment.

Phil Law, who is running again after coming up short in primaries against Jones in 2016 and 2018, loaned his campaign $50,000 last week. Doctor Kevin Baiko, medical director of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network, is running on a promise to support legalizing medial marijuana. Farmer Graham Boyd has received the backing of the state’s agriculture commissioner. Don Cox is a country music artist. Gary Ceres is a library technician at East Carolina University. 

Even North Carolina Republicans following this race closely don’t know how it will end up. Members of the delegation are staying out of it, at least until the runoff.  There’s just too many people, and in a sprint to communicate with voters, no one is wasting money on polling. 

“If you look at almost all the candidates, they’re all about the same — all pro-life, all pro-gun — philosophically across the board fit the district,” Conway said.

It hasn’t broken down the way many GOP primaries do, where there’s a Chamber of Commerce candidate against a Club for Growth candidate.

“None of the normal dynamics have played out here,” said a GOP consultant involved in the race. “My experience tells me it then just comes down to name ID.”

Money certainly helps in a race like this, but the way it’s deployed is even more important — TV, door-knocking and targeted digital ads could all be effective. 

“It’s either a laser beam approach or a shotgun approach. Go with your gut,” Conway said.  “It’s hard to know who’s going to be right.” 

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