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Runoff for safe Republican seat in North Carolina divides the conference

GOP women in the House line up against Mark Meadows and the Freedom Fund

North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows' backing of state Rep. Greg Murphy in the runoff for North Carolina's 3rd District puts him at odds with all of the women Republicans in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows' backing of state Rep. Greg Murphy in the runoff for North Carolina's 3rd District puts him at odds with all of the women Republicans in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The runoff in North Carolina’s 3rd District is dividing the House Republican Conference between one powerful man and more than a dozen women.

It’s North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows and the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus versus the Republican women in the chamber — all 13 of them — plus another male lawmaker from the North Carolina delegation.

Meadows, whose 11th District is in the western part of the state — far away from the open 3rd District on the East Coast — has endorsed state Rep. Greg Murphy, despite his support for a version of Medicaid expansion, which most conservatives would typically consider anathema. The House GOP women have backed pediatrician Joan Perry, who represents the party’s best chance to add another woman to its dwindling ranks this year.

Murphy, a urologic surgeon from Pitt County, finished first in the 17-candidate primary on April 30, with 23 percent of the vote. Because he didn’t surpass 30 percent, Perry, who was second with 15 percent, was able to request a runoff. Whoever wins that contest on July 9 is favored to win the Sept. 10 general election to replace the late Walter B. Jones in this safe Republican district that President Donald Trump won by 24 points in 2016. 

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Strange bedfellows 

Meadows stars in Murphy’s first ad of the runoff, which is running on cable and broadcast TV. The production quality is rough, with the congressman — not the candidate — talking in a hallway for about 40 seconds of the 60-second spot.

Meadows, the chairman of the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus and a close Trump ally, has known Murphy since he got into the state Legislature in 2015. In February 2018, when Jones announced he would only seek one more term, Meadows had early conversations with Murphy about running for the 3rd District in 2020.

Jones’ death a year later accelerated Murphy’s timeline. Meadows encouraged him to run in the special election and endorsed him the day after he finished first in the primary. Their wives have also been in contact. (“They have talked and texted quite a bit,” Meadows said off the House floor last week.)

What’s rubbing some of Meadows’ colleagues the wrong way is that he’s supporting a candidate who wouldn’t seem to fit the mold of conservatives in the House, let alone the Freedom Caucus.

Murphy sponsored a low-income health care plan in the state House that its supporters say would work like private insurance, but would still be approved and funded by federal Medicaid providers. 

“Carolina Cares is a conservative and fiscally responsible alternative to Medicaid expansion that would not add a single person to the already 2 million North Carolinians on the Medicaid rolls,” Murphy wrote in an op-ed in The Daily Reflector earlier this year. 

North Carolina’s Civitas Institute, a conservative nonproft, gave Murphy a 73 percent rating during the 2017 session when he sponsored the bill, which the group opposed. (The former Civitas president finished eighth in last month’s primary.) Murphy has a nearly 89 percent rating from Civitas for the 2019 session.

“Candidly, we don’t agree on every item,” Meadows said earlier this month when asked about his support for Murphy. 

“We have differences of opinion here on the Republican side of the aisle. But I can tell you that as a physician and as someone who understands health care, he’s well-versed in every aspect of it and making sure that there’s an adequate safety net for the people of North Carolina,” Meadows continued. “So it’s not something that divides us — it’s something that more people are trying to create a division than is actually there.”

Meadows’ support for Murphy has put him at odds with FreedomWorks, which traditionally backs conservative candidates and has given Meadows himself a 95 percent lifetime score. FreedomWorks endorsed Perry, calling her a “principled conservative” and vowing to make several independent expenditures for her before the runoff. 

The Club for Growth, which is also usually aligned with candidates supported by the Freedom Caucus’ PAC, backed another woman in the primary, but has not yet made a determination on whether it will be involved in the runoff. 

Meadows downplayed the idea that any personal connection influenced his support for Murphy.

“This is not an endorsement based on friendship. This is an endorsement based on credentials,” he said.

Women for women

While the House Freedom Fund is behind Murphy, the only woman in the Freedom Caucus is not. 

Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko heard about Perry from anti-abortion groups and threw her support behind the pediatrician. 

I would love it if we had more conservative women that share my values,” she told CQ Roll Call in the Capitol earlier this month. 

All the GOP women in the House are backing Perry. Even Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks, the recruitment chairwoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee this cycle, who has had to be more cautious about doling out support in primaries, said she has cut Perry a check from her leadership PAC.  

There’s frustration and confusion among the GOP women about Meadows — a powerful ally of the president who often appears on cable TV — backing Murphy over Perry. 

“Joan Perry is the real conservative in the race,” New York Rep. Elise Stefanik said. “North Carolinians know that, members of Congress know that.”

Stefanik, a moderate member of the GOP conference, is trying to help women — of all ideologies — get through primaries. 

“Unfortunately, it was not the right position for my colleague Mark Meadows to take,” Stefanik said of his support for Murphy over Perry. 

A national group called Women for Trump has backed Murphy. But Perry’s advancement to the runoff was a success for Republican women’s groups, which are trying to help more female candidates through primaries. Susan B. Anthony List’s super PAC spent about $86,000 on Perry’s behalf ahead of the primary, while Winning for Women Action Fund spent $200,000 for her.

“We’ll make sure she has the support she needs to get over the finish line,” Winning for Women spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said in a statement Tuesday. 

Carolina connections 

North Carolina Rep. George Holding is also the only man in the House so far to commit to Perry, who’s a cousin by marriage. 

“We certainly need to have more women in our conference,” he said outside the Capitol last week. “And I think we need more people in our conference that are accomplished in ways other than being a politician.” 

“I would imagine that supporting Medicaid expansion would be a no-go for a number of Republican members,” he added.

Besides Meadows and Holding, the other men in the North Carolina GOP delegation haven’t taken sides. Rep. Ted Budd, another member of the Freedom Caucus, is expected to stay out. His political consultant is also Perry’s consultant. Rep. David Rouzer hasn’t weighed in either. Perry once appeared in an ad for former Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre, who narrowly beat Rouzer in 2012. Rep. Richard Hudson has a non-endorsement policy in primaries. Rep. Mark Walker, the conference vice chairman, hasn’t expressed support for either. Rep. Patrick T. McHenry is still looking at the race. 

Asked about how Meadows’ support for Murphy sways him or other members, McHenry said, “We all do our own thing.”

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