Walter B. Jones has never been afraid of making waves during his 11 terms in Congress.
To conservative primary voters, Jones’ letter asking anyone who had committed “misdeeds” to withdraw from House GOP leadership elections last week may have reinforced the incumbent’s outsider image.
“He basically hit a home run,” said Chuck Fuller, a Republican who does political consulting for businesses in the state and who isn’t affiliated in the 3rd District primary. “I don’t know that you can buy that kind of help.”
Even if one could, Jones probably couldn’t. Fundraising has never been his strong suit. After raising a measly $26,000 in the second quarter of 2015, on Wednesday, Jones posted a $104,000 haul for the third quarter, which ended on Sept. 30. But that still leaves him with just $179,000 in the bank.
He won his 2014 primary by fewer than 6 points, and he already faces the same Republican challenger, former GOP operative Taylor Griffin, whose campaign last year benefitted from outside spending that knocked Jones for being too liberal in the Safe Republican district.
The Farmville, N.C., Republican knows he doesn’t have many friends in GOP leadership to help him fill his coffers. Especially not now.
Jones admitted to CQ Roll Call on Oct. 9 that the rumors about House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy being engaged in an extramarital affair with North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers partially motivated the letter he sent to Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
McCarthy has said Jones’ letter played no part in his decision to step aside in the race for speaker, and in a statement last week, Ellmers called the allegations against her “completely false accusations and innuendo.” At the end of last week, Jones told CQ Roll Call he hoped his letter didn’t push McCarthy out.
Jones has never been tight with leadership. He’s been passed over for a subcommittee gavel on the Armed Services Committee, and even stripped of his position on the Financial Services Committee in 2012 for bucking leadership. In January, he voted against John A. Boehner for speaker.
In 2003, Jones was part of the duo that renamed french fries in the House cafeteria “freedom fries” after France refused to go along with the U.S. plans for military action in Iraq. Two years later, he reversed course, disavowing his votes to authorize the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and angering many in his party.
Jones first came to the House in the 1994 GOP wave after unsuccessfully running as a Democrat in 1992 for the 1st District seat his father held for 26 years. Since 2000, he’s voted with his party 74 percent of the time, compared to 93 percent for the average House Republican, according to don’t know that you can buy that kind of help,” he added. CQ Vote Watch.
“I like to be a thorn in people’s ass,” he told CQ Roll Call in February, when asked about his re-election plans.
But could his latest national headline, combined with outside spending boosting his opponent, cost Jones the 3rd District seat?
“There are some [in Washington] who think that this is going to be a boost for his opponent,” said one North Carolina consultant who heard from a K Street lobbyist immediately after the GOP leadership shakeup last week.
But none of Jones’ donors have said they will no longer be backing him after last week’s letter, a source close to the Jones campaign told CQ Roll Call Wednesday.
And with presidential and gubernatorial advertising saturating the airwaves in the state, there may not be much room for outside spending before the March 15 primary, the source added.
Griffin, a co-founder of Hamilton Place Strategies, already has what Jones doesn’t: strong establishment ties. He worked as an aide to former Sen. Jesse Helms and served as an adviser in the George W. Bush White House and the Treasury Department, only moving back to his native North Carolina before launching his 2014 campaign.
“This cycle [Griffin] is even better positioned to beat Walter,” a North Carolina consultant said. “He’s been in the district, he’s been working, he’s been building relationships,” he added, noting that the carpetbagger charge can’t be so easily lodged against Griffin two years later.
Jones might stand up to GOP leadership, but Griffin’s campaign attacks him for being too quick to compromise with Democrats. “The issue with Walter is that he doesn’t stand up to [Nancy] Pelosi, and that’s not Eastern North Carolina’s preference,” said Brad Todd, an adviser to the Griffin campaign.
But despite Griffin’s strengths as a candidate and worries about Jones’ effectiveness in Congress, several Republicans in the state told CQ Roll Call that Jones’ outsider image — bolstered by events last week — will please conservative primary voters in a presidential year.
“He sort of reminds me of Donald Trump,” said Paul Shumaker, a North Carolina Republican consultant who is managing Sen. Richard M. Burr’s re-election and managed Sen. Thom Tillis’ campaign last year, but is not affiliated in this primary.
“He is what I characterize as more of a personality-based candidate,” Shumaker continued. “The personality is such that voters see beyond some issues they may disagree with him on.”
Jones, he added, is an “anti-Washington, anti-establishment incumbent.”