Joan Perry’s Defeat in G.O.P. Primary Points Up Party’s Gender Woes

WASHINGTON — The results are in from the first big test of the Republican Party’s efforts to recruit and elect more women to Congress this election cycle — and rebuild its majority.

And things are not looking good.

Dr. Joan Perry, a newcomer whom Republicans regarded as a top recruit for 2020, was soundly defeated on Tuesday by Dr. Greg Murphy, a state legislator, in a House Republican primary race in North Carolina that illustrated how steep the party’s climb will be as it tries to build more gender diversity. A very conservative female physician stood against a very conservative male physician, and all things being equal, the man won.

“Of course it was disappointing,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, who supported Dr. Perry and has dedicated her political arm to electing more Republican women. “I am concerned about this false assumption that is made that somehow women candidates are not conservative. That is not the case. Women candidates are just as ideologically diverse in the Republican Party as male candidates are.”

Party leaders conceded that Republicans would have to redouble their efforts.

“I think people are going to have to do more, yes,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader.

But he added that the strength of support for Dr. Perry demonstrated that Republicans had learned the important lesson of the painful 2018 midterms: If they wanted to cultivate more women in their ranks, they would need to become involved early.

“So, that is a fundamental difference within this new Republican Party than you found in the past,” Mr. McCarthy said. “She had the opportunity, she had the backing behind it, and she got the endorsements where other people would not.”

It still wasn’t enough.

[Read how Republican women are trying to rebuild their party.]

A special election in eastern North Carolina for a successor to Representative Walter B. Jones, who died in February, became an intraparty battle of the sexes, pitting all 13 of the House’s Republican women against several powerful Republican men who are close allies of President Trump.

The race, in a safe Republican district, attracted more than $1.5 million in outside spending, the vast majority of it by WFW Action Fund, an organization dedicated to electing more Republican women. WFW supported Dr. Perry. Much of the rest of the money came from the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right group, which backed Dr. Murphy, who promised to join its ranks if elected. The Freedom Caucus’s leaders, Representatives Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, championed his candidacy. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican, backed Dr. Perry’s.

“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,” Ms. Cheney said Wednesday. “Women voters, and attracting women voters, is crucial.”

In the last days of the race, two friends of the president’s became involved as well. His personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani recorded robocalls for Dr. Murphy, and the Fox News host Sean Hannity made a plug for Dr. Murphy on his evening newscast.

“North Carolina voters, pay attention,” Mr. Hannity said on Monday, the eve of the balloting. “We need another Freedom Caucus member tomorrow.”

Mr. Meadows said that the race had more to do with a fight between the political establishment and the Freedom Caucus than one between women and men, and that he shared the goal of diversifying Republican ranks.

“There’s no doubt that having a diverse Republican conference is healthy and good,” Mr. Meadows said.

Through their disappointment, female lawmakers and strategists who had regarded the race as a crucial early test for their efforts to propel more Republican women to Congress said they saw a silver lining. At least now, they argued, party leaders and the donors who support them recognize they have a problem and are willing to put money behind a push to solve it.

“Last night is exactly why we exist, and are needed more than ever,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for WFW Action. “The ‘year of the woman’ for Democrats came three decades after Emily’s List began their work. We’ve been at this for three months.”

Ms. Perez-Cubas said getting Dr. Perry out of the original 17-way primary and into a head-to-head runoff against Dr. Murphy was itself a victory that showed “early primary support does work.”

“This election shows that there will be significant financial support for qualified top-tier women candidates this cycle,” Ms. Stefanik said.

Representative Susan W. Brooks of Indiana, the recruitment chairwoman for the Republican campaign arm, said Dr. Perry’s loss, like those of so many Republican women in the midterm elections in the fall, was demoralizing. But she added that she was optimistic about the women who had come forward to consider a bid.

“While of course disappointed that we aren’t going to add another woman to our ranks, we’ve got a couple hundred women across the country who have expressed interest in running, and so I feel good that we’re going to bring more women in 2020,” said Ms. Brooks, whose announcement last month that she was retiring was widely interpreted as a sign that the party’s effort to woo more women was troubled.

The race revealed the depth of the resistance in some quarters of the Republican Party to the idea of recruiting and electing a new crop of women to Congress. Dr. Murphy’s supporters contended that his victory indicated that voters did not care about gender, and would resist attempts by the party to focus on electing more women.

Dr. Murphy’s victory “showed women flexing their brain power to vote solely on policy above voting with their anatomy,” Amy Kremer, the president of Women for Trump, said in a statement. “Expecting women to vote based on body parts further objectifies women — just because you are a woman doesn’t mean you represent all women.”

For Republican leaders looking at a yawning gender gap, both in Congress and among voters, that argument did not appear persuasive. The number of Republican women in the House sank from 23 in 2018 to 13 in 2019, a year in which 37 women joined the chamber — all but two of them Democrats.

“We don’t have enough Republican women,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina, who supported Dr. Perry. “We do not have a diverse enough party, and that becomes an issue of our lasting capacity to be a national party.”

“This is not about Republicans trying to just pick women or pick based off of race, ethnicity or gender,” Mr. McHenry said. “It is about trying to make sure that our party broadly speaks to the people.”

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