Conservative outside groups come up short in first election of 2019

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The first election of 2019 was a big one. Not necessarily in national significance but in size, with a whopping 23 candidates — and 17 Republicans — vying for the open North Carolina 3rd Congressional District seat.

State Rep. Greg Murphy and pediatrician Dr. Joan Perry finished in the top two of the Republican primary but neither received 30 percent or more of the vote. They will advance to a runoff scheduled for June 9. The general election is slated for Sept. 10.

The Republican primary race for the reliably-red seat, vacated by the death of Rep. Walter Jones in February, drew the attention of several conservative outside groups looking to support their preferred candidate. Needless to say, some did better than others.

No outside spending groups threw their support behind Murphy, the top vote-getter at 22.5 percent. But Murphy had plenty of money himself, raising far more than any of his opponents — $317,994 through March 31. While some of his opponents invoked President Donald Trump and other national figures in their campaigns, Murphy stuck with his message of lowering taxes.

Perry raised $152,245 through March but also received support from several outside groups. Anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List made $86,853 in independent expenditures supporting Perry through its Women Speak Out PAC. Winning for Women Action Fund made its first appearance, adding another $201,351 in support of Perry.

The group, which intends to recruit and support Republican women candidates, cheered Perry’s second place finish, saying in a statement it “proves that voters have an appetite for electing qualified Republican women and that critical primary support will help get them there.”

Outside groups that bet on Perry can call her second-place finish a success. The rest — not so much.

Influential anti-tax super PAC Club for Growth shelled out $199,050 to boost public accountant Celeste Cairns’ campaign, but she finished ninth. Another super PAC, an obscure group called Awake Carolina, spent $104,350 to boost Cairns. The outside support wasn’t enough, as Cairns raised just $75,099 and collected only 1,462 of 68,593 votes cast.

Phil Shepard, another state representative, raised $70,500 and finished third. He was boosted by an obscure group called Conservatives for a Better North Carolina, which reported spending $37,211 to support Shepard, $2,500 against Murphy and $2,500 against Perry.

In a low turnout race, 14 candidates drew at least 1 percent of the vote in the Republican primary.

In the Democratic primary, the top fundraiser, former Greenville, N.C., mayor Allen Thomas won with 50 percent of the vote. He leapfrogged his five Democratic opponents in campaign cash, pulling in $255,370.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps aviator Richard Bew, who raised $123,208 through March, finished second. The Democratic primary didn’t attract outside groups, as the Republican primary winner is favored to win the district that Trump won by nearly 24 points.

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