Joan Perry, Greg Murphy advance to runoff in North Carolina's special election for Walter Jones' seat

/ CBS/AP

Two physicians advanced Tuesday to a Republican runoff in the special election to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr. The last candidate standing from the 17-member GOP field ultimately will take on a former North Carolina mayor who won the Democratic primary.

State Rep. Greg Murphy of Greenville and Joan Perry of Kinston were the top two vote-getters in the very crowded Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District seat that Jones held for 24 years before his death in February at age 76 .

Murphy, a urologic surgeon who joined the legislature in 2015, finished first but failed to climb above the 30% of the vote required to avoid a July 9 runoff. The second-place Perry, a pediatrician and former member of the state university system's governing board, will formally request a runoff as the law requires she do, campaign manager Blake Belch said Tuesday night.

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Winning for Women Action Fund (WFW AF), a Super PAC focused on electing more conservative women to office that endorsed Perry and announced a six-figure ad campaign in support of the Republican, issued a statement congratulating the political newcomer.

"The fact that Dr. Perry, a political outsider, earned enough votes for a runoff proves that voters have an appetite for electing qualified Republican women and that critical primary support will help get them there," said Executive Director Rebecca Schuller.

"WFW AF is literally putting its money where its mouth is. Our work in NC-03 shows we are serious about playing in primaries to elect more women. We're proud that Dr. Perry was our first endorsement, and we look forward to getting her over the finish line."

The runoff winner will take on ex-Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas, who won a six-candidate primary by receiving 50% of the votes cast. Richard "Otter" Bew, a retired Marine colonel who had served as a legislative aide to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, finished second.

The general election, now set for Sept. 10, also will feature Libertarian and Constitution party nominees. That election winner will succeed Jones, who was considered a conservative maverick by some and a GOP backslider by others.

A relentless advocate for campaign finance reform and controlling the national debt, Jones angered some Republicans by becoming a strong critic of the Iraq War after earlier fervently supporting the 2003 invasion. This never kept him from losing in his district, where voters also overwhelmingly backed Donald Trump for president in 2016.

Twenty-six candidates in all filed to run in the eastern North Carolina district covering all or parts of 17 counties from the Virginia line and the Outer Banks to Camp Lejeune and Greenville. Murphy and Perry were among the top campaign fundraisers in the GOP field.

The 3rd District race is one of two unusual North Carolina congressional races this year. The 9th District is having a do-over primary in May and general election as early as September, after last year's race was marred by allegations of absentee ballot tampering.

Despite Trump carrying the 3rd District by 24 percentage points in November 2016, local Democrats are hopeful their nominee can win a special election with the right matchup or narrative.

Finishing third in the GOP primary was state Rep. Phil Shepard of Jacksonville, followed by another state House member, Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern, according to unofficial results. Phil Law, who lost to Jones in the 2016 and 2018 primaries, followed in fifth.

Current New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw finished third in the Democratic primary.

Preliminary overall turnout was less than 15% of the 3rd District's registered voters who were qualified to cast ballots in the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian primaries early or on Tuesday, according to the State Board of Elections.

First published on May 1, 2019 / 7:09 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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