Walter B. Jones, Jr. is known as a maverick congressman. He has one of the lowest ACU scores for a Republican in the South. Known for starting the “freedom fries” movement, Jones reversed course and became one of the most emotional opponents of the Iraq War. He made headlines a few months ago when he said that Dick Cheney was probably going to Hell for his role in the route to war. Jones’ independence has caused consternation among the Republican caucus, and he was punished by being stripped of some of his committee assignments.
Given this background, one would expect Jones to be a prime target for a challenge from the right. But efforts to primary him in the past have failed. Last year, Jones faced Frank Palombo, a former chief of police from New Bern. Jones won 70%-30%, hardly bothering to campaign.
This time around, things could be different, because Jones faces his most formidable opponent ever. That opponent is Taylor Griffin, a former George W. Bush aide. Griffin says that he’ll run as a “real conservative” and plans to attack Jones as being one of the most liberal Republican congressmen.
But despite a sterling resume and what appears to be clear support from the Republican establishment, Griffin will have a tough fight ahead of him if he wants to oust Jones. That’s because Jones has the support of the same element that’s given headaches to so many moderate Republicans, what I call the “liberty Republicans” – the Ron Paul crowd, the Greg Brannon crowd. Recently, the burden of proof has been on incumbent Republicans to prove that they’re not traitors to the cause. This time, I think it will be the challenger who has to prove that Jones is unacceptably liberal.
Other than his support from the liberty crowd, Jones is strong because of his very high name recognition and long record of service in Congress. He represents the same parts of the state that his father represented decades ago. In eastern North Carolina, the Jones name goes a long way.
In a primary, Griffin will charge that Jones is too liberal. Jones will say that Griffin is a flunky of the Washington establishment and has parachuted into the district at the behest of Boehner and the NRCC. Griffin has already tried to preemptively counter this charge, playing up his eastern North Carolina roots on his website.
One interesting factor in a primary might be the large number of transplants that have recently moved to NC-03. These are affluent people, mostly retirees, who are strongly Republican. These voters, not familiar with Jones, could be easily persuaded by a strong campaign on the part of Griffin. He will, of course, need the resources to compete with Jones. His floor is probably 40%.
Right now, it’s too early to say what will happen here. I could easily see Griffin losing by 20 points, or winning by a couple. The primary will coincide with the Senate primary. Do you think Jones can count on an endorsement from one of the candidates? Keep an eye on this one.