GOP primary challenge will test Jones’ 2 decades on Capitol Hill

Renee Schoof

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones was a lonely Republican voice opposing President George W. Bush for leading the nation into the Iraq war. Now a former Bush aide from eastern North Carolina wants to unseat him.

“Walter Jones is a good man. He’s just not a good conservative and by that I mean he’s not a good across-the-board conservative,” the challenger, Taylor Griffin, tells audiences as he seeks votes in the May 6 primary across eastern North Carolina’s solidly Republican Third District.

It stretches from Wilmington to the Virginia border and across 22 counties.

Jones opposes war and foreign aid, as well as abortion, gay marriage and citizenship for illegal aliens. The National Rifle Association gives him an “A.” Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, thanked him in a radio message for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

But Jones, 71 and a 10-term veteran of Capitol Hill, also has become known in recent years for his willingness to break from his party leaders.

He was one of only three Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009, and one of two who opposed expanding the scope of the Bush administration’s secret surveillance program.

At a rally last year Jones said that Bush should have been impeached for misleading America over the Iraq war. The same year, he told a meeting of the Young Americans for Liberty in Raleigh, “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney,” referring to Bush’s vice president.

Jones supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but in 2005 had a profound change of heart after he attended the funeral of a marine sergeant and began speaking out against the war.

Some groups, including the Crystal Coast Tea Party, are annoyed that Jones votes against foreign aid, including aid to Israel. An outside group running ads against Jones criticizes him for voting against sanctions on Iran.

Jones calls for cuts in government spending, but has opposed some Republican budget bills. He said he did so whenever they included cuts to veterans and aid to Afghanistan.

America can’t fix its own problems, Jones said, so “where in the world do we think we can keep spending money that we don’t have, borrow it from foreign governments, to spend overseas so that what we build the Taliban can blow up?”

Some legislative scorecards of key votes rate Jones as very conservative. But in 2012, the nonpartisan Washington political magazine, National Journal, found him to be the “most liberal Republican.”

That’s been political ammunition for Griffin and his supporters.

At the annual Third District Republican convention on April 12 in Havelock, Griffin said the National Journal’s rating showed that Jones had voted with President Barack Obama more than any other Republican. He asked for a show of hands of convention delegates who had seen him or a surrogate campaigner. Many hands went up. When he asked the same about Jones, only a few did.

Jones didn’t attend the convention. Before he knew the date, he said, he’d agreed to speak at the annual Down East Walk to Defeat ALS in Greenville. Even so, he won the convention’s straw vote with 54 percent, compared with 40 percent for Griffin and 7 percent for a third candidate, Albin “Big Al” Novinec.

Joseph McCammond of Morehead City, a retired Marine who spoke on Jones’ behalf, said that Jones was a “true conservative” and an advocate for veterans and active-duty service members.

The district is home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, near Jacksonville, and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in Havelock. Jones is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. If re-elected, he’d become the second-ranking Republican on the committee next year.

Joe Sturz, a Christian counselor and Air Force veteran from Greenville who attended the convention, said Jones’ name was “pure gold in this area.” He called him “a man of convictions,” adding, “he’s been tried and tested and stood by those convictions, which is very rare in Washington.”

Griffin supporters see the congressman differently.

Scott Dacey, a member of the Craven County Board of Commissioners, said Jones received a “stunning admonishment” when lost his membership on the House Financial Services Committee. The Republican Steering Committee removed him in 2012, apparently after he voted against the wishes of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, too many times.

Dacey said he supported Jones in the past, but changed his mind. He said the congressman didn’t visit Craven County after Hurricane Irene, and believes that he has become ineffective.

Griffin is “willing to be passionately involved in the things affecting eastern North Carolina” and also understands how things work in Washington, Dacey said.

Griffin, 38, was born in Raleigh and grew up in Wilson. He became an Eagle Scout and spent summers in Morehead City before college. He traces his family roots back more than 300 years in the region around the Albermarle Sound.

He went to Washington to work for the late Sen. Jesse Helms after he graduated from Appalachian State University. Griffin also worked on Bush’s elections and for Sarah Palin when she was the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2008. He served in the White House office of media affairs from 2001 to 2003 and as a deputy communications director in the Treasury Department from 2003 to 2006.

Griffin then founded Hamilton Place Strategies, a policy and public affairs consulting firm in Washington.

He moved to New Bern last year.

“This is where I grew up and this is the part of the world I care about most,” he said in an interview. “I came back home to run for Congress because I did not feel eastern North Carolina was being represented well and I felt I had the experience and the ability to do better.”

He told the Third District convention that he believes that “life begins at conception,” opposes any infringement on gun rights afforded by the Second Amendment and argues that American citizenship should not be “given away” to illegal immigrants.

He also calls for lower spending to reduce the national debt.

The Crystal Coast Tea Party endorsed Griffin, but hasn’t backed Jones in recent primary races, said Bob Cavanaugh, the group’s chairman. Cavanaugh said he opposed Jones in part because Jones was against foreign aid. It’s a small part of the budget, and he said aid to Israel should be a priority.

Mark Price, a history teacher at Southwest Onslow High school, Jacksonville who attended the convention, said Jones was “a good man,” but that his 20 years in Congress were long enough.

Novinec, a third candidate in the race, has a lower profile and didn’t attend the convention. A retired Marine who served three tours of duty in Iraq and lives in Jacksonville, Novinec, 56, said he was running because “we need more honest, good people who want to do their civic duty.”

He also is concerned that the government has grown larger than the Founding Fathers intended.

Novinec said he was financing his campaign himself and would return the two donations he received _ $100 from his mother-in-law and $50 from someone else _ if he didn’t win the primary.

Griffin collected $118,000 in contributions in the first quarter of the year. Jones received $102,000 for the quarter.

But Griffin also has had support from two outside groups that bought ads on his behalf. One is the Emergency Committee for Israel, whose chairman, Bill Kristol, is the editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative policy magazine. Its TV ad says Jones is the most liberal Republican and criticizes him for opposing sanctions on Iran.

Another is the Ending Spending Action Fund, founded by Joe Ricketts, the former CEO of TD Ameritrade and a conservative supporter. Its ad also accused Jones of being too liberal. Ending Spending is backed by Republican mega-donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a conservative backer of Israel and opponent of negotiations with Iran.

Jones hasn’t had a serious primary challenge since 2008, when he defeated Joe McLaughlin, who criticized Jones for his war opposition, 59 percent to 41 percent.

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau