Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina occupies a strange place on the spectrum of American politics. An 18-year House veteran from the conservative coast, Jones is a pro-life former Democrat, raised Baptist but a Catholic convert. The 70-year-old Republican’s biggest claim to fame may have come in 2003 when France decided not to participate in the American-led coalition invading Iraq. In a moment of patriotic pique, Jones, following the lead of a diner in his district, directed the House cafeterias to rename French fries as “freedom fries.”
As the appetite for freedom fries waned, so did Jones’s support for the Iraq war. By 2007, he was voicing his opposition to Iraq in a TV interview with George Stephanopoulos. The Nation, the magazine for the true believers of the left, hailed Jones as a hero. He started appearing publicly with Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war activist. He’s said repeatedly that George W. Bush should have been impeached. Most recently, Jones told a local group of libertarians that Lyndon Johnson is likely rotting in hell for his escalation of the Vietnam War.
“And he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney,” he added.
It’s no surprise that some conservatives in the GOP are looking to replace Jones in 2014 with a Republican nominee more in line with the party on national security. One candidate could be Scott Dacey, the chairman of the Craven County commission and a lobbyist in D.C. Dacey has said he’s “seriously considering” entering the race, arguing voters in the district, which covers much of eastern Carolina, say Jones is “not effective.”
Marc Rotterman says Jones’s anti-war views don’t align with the district’s conservative profile. Rotterman was a longtime campaign consultant for Jones, working for him from his first successful run for Congress in 1994 through the 2008 cycle, after which Rotterman broke ties with the Jones campaign.
“Over time, his votes became more erratic and less conservative, both domestically and on foreign policy,” Rotterman says. “What really changed the deal for us is when he started hanging out with Cindy Sheehan and Dennis Kucinich, and frankly, started running with a crowd that we weren’t comfortable with as Republicans and conservatives. His constant maligning of our commander in chief was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“We’re certainly for Walter having a primary,” says Barry Bennett, the director of the Alliance for America’s Future. AAF is a pro-defense, pro-free market super PAC formerly affiliated with Mary Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president. Bennett says Jones has been “kind of lazy,” and a formidable primary opponent could upset him.
AAF knocks Jones in a recent online video, asking the question, “What happened to Walter Jones?” The video cites the fact that the congressman, who sits on the armed services committee, has not once visited Iraq or Afghanistan. “Not even to thank [the troops] for their service,” the video’s text reads.
But Glen Downs, Jones’s chief of staff, dismissed the criticism. “He’s been to Walter Reed 21 times,” Downs says. “He speaks to the troops.” In fact, Jones has sent handwritten letters to the families of every single member killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, expressing his condolences for their loss. He told Stephanopoulos in 2007 that his experience at the funeral of a fallen soldier was what turned him against the war.
GOP critics say it isn’t just Jones’s foreign policy that’s out of step with the party—he’s not as conservative on domestic issues as he used to be. In 2012, he had a 67 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, lower than most House Republicans and well below his lifetime average of 83.7. The lower score came not just from Jones’s votes against defense spending but also his votes against the House budget authored by Paul Ryan and domestic energy production. The AAF video cites his votes for raising some taxes and against a balanced budget, by way of Jones’s opposition to the Ryan budget. Downs says Ryan’s balances partly because of increased tax revenues, which Jones opposes. He also says that Jones’s policy differences with other brands of conservatism are “well known.”
So could Jones lose a primary challenge? History says no. Jones went mostly unopposed until 2008, when a poorly funded pro-defense Republican held him to 59 percent in the primary. In 2010, he trounced two primary opponents with 77 percent of the vote. He faced the longtime police chief of New Bern in the 2012 primary but came away with 69 percent support. Ferrell Blount, a former state party chairman in North Carolina, is backing Jones again for 2014 and doesn’t think next year will be any better for potential challengers.
“I think Walter’s well loved in the district. He’s got a wonderful constituent services,” Blount said.
There’s also the benefit of the Jones name. His father, also named Walter B., was a conservative Democrat who served in Congress for nearly three decades. The people of eastern Carolina have been represented by a Jones for nearly 47 uninterrupted years, and it may be a hard habit to break.
Phil Knight, a local talk radio host, says he would support Dacey if he got in the race because he says Jones is “ineffective” in Washington. Knight noted, however, that many of the older citizens in the district who call in to his show say they like their current congressman. “They tell me, ‘Walter Jones is good to the veterans,’” Knight says. “But he hasn’t done much of substance.”
Dacey’s advantage over past primary challengers could be his ability to raise enough money to compete against an incumbent. Jones, meanwhile, no longer sits on the financial services committee, meaning some of his own campaign funds from banks and financial service companies could dry up. He has few friends in the House Republican leadership team, and his several hundred thousand dollars in outstanding dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee suggests he’d have a tough time getting fundraising help from his House colleagues.
Blount, however, cautions against the assumption that a better-funded candidate could knock Jones out in a primary. He cited the case of Jones’s self-funding Democratic opponent in 2000, Leigh Harvey McNairy.
“If money was going to beat Walter Jones, it would have happened then,” Blount says.