Cash Shortfall Could Stymie Jones’ Foe

Posted April 30, 2008 at 6:27pm

With less than a week until North Carolina’s primary, Joe McLaughlin (R) is still waiting for his ship to come in.

McLaughlin, an Onslow County commissioner, was tagged early this cycle as a potential GOP incumbent-slayer, in this case against Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), a born-again Iraq War critic. But in the waning hours leading up until the Tar Heel State’s May 6 primary, an upset of Jones appears unlikely, and preliminary conclusions already are streaming in for the reasons why: fundraising, fundraising, fundraising.

Even McLaughlin’s campaign on Wednesday wasn’t glossing over the reality of empty cupboards.

“I’m not an idiot. When [Jones] has got three-quarters of a million dollars [and McLaughlin] has got a buck and a quarter, I would never commit that we’re going to go out there and beat him,” McLaughlin spokesman Doug Raymond said. “But I bet my house that it’s going to be close.”

Of course, anything is possible. Turnout among GOP activists who hate Jones’ position on the war could surge. Or Jones, the lone Member of the House to endorse the quixotic presidential bid of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), could turn around in the next few days and endorse Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

After all, during the past two years the Republican base in Jones’ coastal North Carolina district, home of the U.S. Marines Corps’ Camp Lejeune, have seen their lawmaker — who was an early and vocal supporter of the war — do perhaps stranger things. Like, say, siding with Democrats last year in opposing the troop “surge” in Iraq.

“Let’s work with the president to find an endpoint to the strategy,” Jones said on the House floor ahead of his vote. “Let’s not put our men and women in the middle of a civil war to make them referees.”

Within months of Jones’ early 2007 floor speech, McLaughlin had filed papers declaring his upstart primary challenge. He caught some early press for his challenge and outraised the incumbent in his first full fundraising quarter, in the district, at least.

Republicans were soon whispering of a possible endorsement by anti-tax crusaders the Club for Growth, which would have provided more national exposure and with it a fundraising lifeline.

But McLaughlin waited. And waited. And waited. By Jan. 1, 2008, his campaign had only $30,000 in cash.

Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik would only speak generally about the club’s pass on McLaughlin, saying, “It just wasn’t in the cards.”

“We look at our resources and where we want to put them,” Soloveichik said. “Incumbent races are always difficult: No matter how vulnerable an incumbent is, the challenger is always the underdog.”

Parsing the club’s line: Jones isn’t perhaps as vulnerable as his Iraq vote would have Washington-types to believe. And McLaughlin never raised money to help his cause.

A North Carolina Republican operative said that McLaughlin’s failure to lock down the Club for Growth’s endorsement — or some other “big heavy” — was a major setback for the challenger. Still, McLaughlin’s camp has methodically knocked on doors in the district for roughly a year, the source said, and anything is possible.

A major endorsement “would’ve been his only shot,” the source said. “The only scenario he has is if the turnout is so incredibly low and [McLaughlin] is able to get his folks out.”

“But because Jones has treated this essentially as his [main] election, they’ve used the resources necessary and are taking nothing for granted,” the source continued. “And Jones has done a good job of keeping his values voters and got a good endorsement from the [National Rifle Association].”

Jones had spent nearly $670,000 on the primary as of April 16. McLaughlin had spent less than $110,000.

McLaughlin spokesman Raymond disagreed with assessments of “Washington people” that the campaign solely “is about the war.” Those voters are a lost cause for Jones, he said, and the primary fight has been about converting voters on the economy and other issues.

“To those people for whom the war is the No. 1 issue, their minds were made up six months ago,” he said. “The people that believe that there is no way to leave Iraq without victory are our voters … and nothing is going to change that.”

But a North Carolina Republican operative disagreed. The source said McLaughlin and other anti-Jones Republicans are “because of the Iraq War almost solely.” And ironically enough, the source said, the moral of the primary may wind up being that, like Jones, local GOP primary voters are turning against the war.