Joan Perry, a physician and first-time candidate, answers a question during a debate with state Rep. Greg Murphy, her rival in a primary runoff election for North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District seat. (Deborah Griffin/AP)

The election would otherwise be an afterthought on Capitol Hill, two conservatives in a runoff to determine who wins the GOP nomination for a House seat along North Carolina’s coast that has remained in Republican hands for 25 years.

But Tuesday’s race pitting Joan Perry, a pediatrician who never ran for office, against Greg Murphy, a state representative, is about much more than determining who is likely to represent the conservative district for years to come.

Instead, this North Carolina special election has turned into a significant test of Republican women’s standing, particularly among GOP primary voters, just months after the disastrous 2018 midterm elections cratered female GOP ranks in Congress.

From their office in Georgetown, a small but well-financed group of Republican women will be watching to find out whether their roughly $1 million investment in Perry moved the needle to victory. And, win or lose, they will be studying the outcome to divine lessons they can use to boost other female GOP candidates next year.

“We’re not going to be a Republican majority if we don’t get more women elected,” said Barbara Comstock, a board member for Winning for Women Action Fund, a GOP super PAC that was created to back female Republican candidates in congressional races.

Comstock was one of the many House Republican women who was defeated last November after four years representing the suburbs of northern Virginia. Their numbers plummeted from 23 women in the House GOP caucus to just 13, which placed them at the same level as 1994’s representation.

Meanwhile, Democrats won back the majority thanks to dozens of female candidates, many running their first race ever, boosting their ranks to 89, easily a record high for the most women in either party’s caucus.

A week after the midterm elections a half dozen of the remaining GOP women took Comstock out to a steakhouse dinner, partly as consolation after a tough race, partly to vent about the outcome, before one realized that their little dinner table that night represented half the number of female House Republicans for 2019.

“Republican women, I think, are sick and tired of not getting the recognition,” said Rebecca Schuller, Winning for Women’s executive director.

Schuller is leading the day-to-day effort to boost candidates like Perry, whom they have portrayed as a conservative mother of five who is deeply opposed to abortion rights. Their goal for the next 16 months is relatively modest: “20 for 20,” to boost the number of women in the House GOP caucus to at least 20 in the 2020 elections.

They are making a concerted effort to search for seats like this one, vacated after the January death of Walter B. Jones Jr., who first won election in 1994 and never faced a tough reelection bid. If Perry wins, Comstock said, she can probably hold the seat for a long time, gain seniority and become an important figure in GOP politics.

This super PAC has dominated the airwaves of the relatively small media markets along the Outer Banks and in Wilmington’s suburbs, with a helping hand from some longer term traditional conservative groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, the group pushing to elect antiabortion women.

The question looming, however, is how much a loss for Perry would blunt any momentum that these groups hoped to gain.

All 13 of the House GOP women have endorsed Perry, including Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who is No. 3 in Republican leadership; Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), a former member of the GOP leadership; and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Even Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, formally endorsed Perry last week.

Murphy has only had minimal financial support from an outside group, the House Freedom Action Fund, a PAC affiliated with the House Freedom Caucus. That conservative group’s leader, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has endorsed Murphy while the group has questioned Perry’s conservative bona fides.

If Perry cannot win with such strong support, financially and from testimonials, is the House Republican Conference just no place for women?

Comstock and Schuller believe they have achieved some success just by lifting a little-known female doctor into a runoff against a veteran politician.

In particular, they plan to learn how best to respond to the line of attack that a female Republican must be an ideological squish with no conservative appeal.

“Women tend to get labeled as a moderate based on gender,” Schuller said. “Women have to prove themselves differently, and that’s exactly why we exist.”

Winning for Women has already spoken to more than 100 potential female GOP candidates, and its affiliated nonprofit, which has been around for several years, has a membership topping 500,000, providing potential grass roots donors and volunteers.

But the issue is not just recruiting women to run, it’s getting them across the finish line. Last year Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) served as the recruiting chief for the National Republican Congressional Committee, getting more than 100 women to run for office.

Most lost in the primary, to male opponents, and almost all the rest lost in the general election to a Democrat. When she felt leadership did not take her complaints seriously enough, Stefanik abandoned her NRCC position and launched E-PAC, a leadership committee devoted to promoting female candidates.

Another blow to Republican women came when Stefanik’s replacement as recruiting chair, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), announced she would not seek reelection — creating the odd position of the person trying to recruit candidates abandoning the House.

Winning for Women has already sent a senior aide to the suburbs north of Indianapolis to try to find a candidate for a seat that Brooks has comfortably held since 2012.

Their first big test comes Tuesday with the Perry-Murphy showdown, and regardless of the outcome Comstock, Schuller and other advisers to the super PAC want GOP women thinking about running to understand there’s a group out there that wants to help.

“They should know that there’s a support system for them,” Comstock said.

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