North Carolina’s longest-serving sitting congressman, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, could face his most difficult re-election bid yet if his support continues to slide and an anti-establishment Republican voter mood plays out the way some political observers suspect it might.
Jones, 73, has had comfortable general-election wins since his first election in 1994. And despite criticism from his own party at times for his opposition to the Iraq War and his attempts to rein in federal spending by voting against military budget proposals, Jones has successfully knocked down primary challengers over recent years.
The March 15 primary, though, could be different.
“This is probably going to be one of his toughest races in his entire career,” said David McLennan, visiting professor and political scientist at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. A runoff or second primary between Jones and his best-financed challenger, Taylor Griffin, is a possibility, McLennan said.
Still, he said, “It’s hard to discount Walter Jones” can win, because of his name recognition and longevity.
It will be close – but I think we’re going to be OK.
Rep. Walter Jones on 2016 primary competition
Two men who have never held elected office are vying with Jones in the 3rd Congressional District, made up of 22 counties in Eastern North Carolina.
One of the challengers, Griffin, is a repeat opponent from the 2014 primary. Then, Jones won the primary by 6 percentage points, a difference of about 2,500 votes.
Griffin, 40, has again built a formidable campaign to challenge Jones next month. The two have similar amounts of campaign cash on hand, and Griffin pulled in more contributions than Jones in the last quarter of 2015, according to the most recent campaign-finance disclosures available.
Griffin is a former regional spokesman for President George W. Bush and a campaign aide to Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Before moving back to North Carolina – his home state – to run for office, Griffin founded a public relations and political consulting firm that he later sold to business partners.
“Whoever wins, it’s going to be close,” said Carmine Scavo, political science professor at East Carolina University. Scavo predicts Jones or Griffin will perform well enough to win the primary outright and head to the general election against Democrat David Hurst.
A third candidate in the race might also complicate things if he siphons off some of the “anti-Jones” vote, McLennan said.
Phil Law, a 34-year-old Marine Corps veteran, has taken leave from his position as a site IT supervisor for Hewlett-Packard to campaign full time but he still trails substantially in fundraising as he makes his first run for office.
In the 3rd Congressional District, the Republican primary is the main battleground during an election year. Jones’ district is considered a safe Republican seat although most registered voters identify themselves as Democrats, according to state records.
The area has historically been solid ground for conservatives but might undergo some change, depending on how state lawmakers redraw nearby congressional district lines to comply with a recent federal court decision. North Carolina may be required to redraw the 1st and 12th congressional districts after judges found those two districts were designed to weaken the broader voting power of black residents.
The 1st Congressional District seat, now held by Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, borders Jones’ district, which encompasses about 7,800 square miles along the state’s coast and includes inland farming towns that make the district one of the state’s most valuable agricultural hubs. Until maps are finalized and approved by federal judges, the future redistricting impact on the 3rd Congressional District is unknown.
Jones: Primary will ‘be close’
Aside from the redistricting issue, Jones could find himself vulnerable as voters who once aligned with the tea party and now support GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, are expected to come out in force this year, McLennan said.
Nationally, tea party voter fury against incumbents was evident in 2010, when Republican members of Congress were ousted by political newcomers who claimed GOP leaders weren’t conservative enough, especially on fiscal issues and taxes.
Donald Trump’s supporters might contribute to anti-establishment vote against incumbents such as Jones
In 2010, Jones sailed through his District 3 primary with 77 percent of the vote, but since then, his primary-win margins have shrunk.
Scavo thinks that if Trump’s momentum continues into next month’s primary, the top of North Carolina’s Republican ballot might turn out voters looking to unseat Jones, whom they may see as part of the “status quo” due to his long stay in Congress. A Trump effect might be strong enough to help Griffin to the nomination, Scavo said.
Still, “Walter Jones is an institution around here,” Scavo said, adding that efforts by his opponents to paint the incumbent as liberal may not be accurate. “He routinely votes against (unbalanced) budgets . . . In that respect, he’s more conservative than the (Republican) leadership.”
If Jones can convince voters he’s not “a traditional Republican,” Scavo said, he likely won’t struggle in the March primary.
40% a candidate needs this percentage of the primary vote to avoid a runoff
2,592 votes gave Jones victory over Griffin in 2014 primary
7,810 square miles in NC’s 3rd Congressional District, larger than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined
$12,000 Jones holds slight ‘cash-on-hand’ campaign advantage over Griffin
To avoid a runoff, North Carolina election law requires candidates to get 40 percent or more of the vote, called a “plurality.” If a runoff is needed, the second election would be May 24.
In an interview this month with McClatchy, Jones said he expected the March 15 primary to “be close – but I think we’re going to be OK.” He added: “I would hope I could get 40 percent. If not, I’m in bad shape.”
Challengers hammer on military votes
Griffin charges Jones is a “career politician,” and Law says the 10-term congressman is a member of a “political dynasty.” Jones’ father, Walter B. Jones Sr., represented the region in the U.S. House for 26 years as a Democrat from North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. Before his election to Congress, the younger Jones served 10 years in the N.C. General Assembly as a Democrat.
While Jones’ long political career may make him a target, McLennan says Jones is anything but a foot soldier for the GOP’s established leadership.
“He doesn’t follow the Washington script,” McLennan said, adding that Jones has an “independent streak” and often does not vote along party lines. Jones also champions issues that aren’t “typical Republican” talking points, McLennan said, such as campaign finance restructuring, which proponents say would reduce the influence of corporate money and special-interest groups on politics.
“My strength is my independence,” Jones told McClatchy. “I think I’m in touch with the people I represent. . . . They may not always agree with me, (but) they trust me.”
While Griffin’s campaign has claimed Jones votes too often with House Democrats and is out of sync with conservative members, Jones said he wouldn’t be made to walk lockstep with Republicans.
“When my party is right, I’m proud to vote with my party,” he said, but he added that Republican-led policies aren’t always “right for District 3.”
Griffin and Law criticize Jones’ record on military spending legislation. Jones has regularly opposed the National Defense Reauthorization Act, which supplies money for the Department of Defense.
Few have criticized federal budget deficits – in particular military “waste” – as often as Jones
He has railed against what he calls “Pentagon waste” and he argues that recent military spending measures have required the federal government to borrow money to support “endless wars in the Middle East.”
Griffin says he understands Jones’ frustration with fraud or waste in the federal government but thinks that other programs, not the military, deserve more scrutiny.
He wants cuts to entitlement programs and says he would support raising the retirement age to make sure Social Security remains solvent. Griffin also wants federal officials to stop granting tax credits to companies investing in renewable or “green” energy, such as the solar power industry, which has grown rapidly in North Carolina in recent years.
Law has leapt on Jones’ voting record and says that while he understands the incumbent’s concerns about federal spending, he disagrees with times he’s voted against the interests of military families. The issue is what led Law to run against Jones.
Jones was one of five House Republicans to vote against legislation in 2014 that expands health care options for military veterans who face long wait times with the Veterans Affairs Department or live far away from government-run medical centers. The “veteran’s choice” program became law and required about $12 million in new funding to the VA.
Few members of Congress have criticized federal spending deficits and in particular military “waste” as often as Jones.
“I blame Congress,” he said. And he says Republican and Democratic presidents alike have contributed to the problem.
The most recent military spending measure he voted against, Jones said, includes “billions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan” but cuts money for basic housing allowances and increases service members’ co-payments for prescriptions.
“The military,” Jones said, “deserves the very best and they’re getting shortchanged by Congress.”