Commentary

Christensen: Jones race uncovers GOP fault lines

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMay 13, 2014 

Winston Churchill liked to say that “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” which is why Republican Rep. Walter Jones is in fine fettle these days.

The GOP Washington establishment spent more than $1 million trying to end Jones’ 20-year House career, but despite its best effort, Jones was still standing after last week’s 3rd District GOP primary. He’ll face Democrat Marshall Adame in November.

The primary between Jones and Taylor Griffin, a former Bush White House staffer, whom Jones defeated 51 to 45 percent, tells us a few things about the fault lines in the Republican Party.

Jones, a soft-spoken, 71-year-old pious man who sprinkles his conversations with “God Bless Yous,” has always been hard to put into a box. The son of a longtime Democratic congressman from Farmville, he started out as a big supporter of the war in Iraq but turned against it when he decided it was not worth the sacrifice and because he believed the Bush administration lied about the reasons for entering the war. He has since written thousands of letters to families of American soldiers killed in Iraq.

Bucking the leadership

Jones has also polished his maverick status by bucking the GOP leadership on a number of votes, including the budget, debt ceilings and Bush’s No Child Left Behind. His apostasy caused House leaders to throw him off the House Financial Services Committee.

The National Journal, a nonpartisan publication, rated Jones as having the most moderate record of any Republican House member. But he is not a moderate in the traditional sense of being a middle-of-the-roader – he is outspokenly conservative on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

A number of conservative groups with ties to the GOP establishment began pouring money into the district this year to help defeat Jones and elect Griffin. Among them were the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Ending Spending Action Fund, backed by such figures as Bill Kristol, Joe Ricketts and Sheldon Adelson.

“The whole Bush White House crowd that destroyed the GOP’s commitment to fiscal discipline, bailed out Wall Street and GM and launched disastrous wars ... joined the attack,” wrote David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director. “The heavy artillery included … Karl Rove, former Governor and RNC Chairman Haley Barbour and the War Party’s highly paid chief PR flack, Ari Fleischer.”

In the closing days of the campaign, the district was planted with yard signs noting former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Griffin.

A ‘peace conservative’

Pat Buchanan, columnist and former presidential candidate, said that Jones is a principled “peace conservative.”

“Consider what the GOP establishment and the Adelson-Kristol neo cons are telling Republicans nationally with this wilding attack on a venerable veteran of the Republican House,” Buchanan wrote.

“They are saying: You can be for amnesty for illegal aliens, support same-sex marriage, be pro-choice on abortion, and you can still be welcome to our party,” Buchanan wrote. “But oppose foreign aid or resist the War Party agenda, and you are a heretic who shall be purged.”

Rush Limbaugh, the syndicated talk show host, saw Jones’ renomination as a victory for the tea party, and he viewed it as more significant than state House Speaker Thom Tillis clinching the GOP Senate nomination.

“They came after Walter Jones with big money, and they failed,” Limbaugh said. “And I think that race is a little bit more indicative A, of the strength of the tea party, B, public moods and attitudes, and a predictor of future elections in North Carolina than what happened in that Senate primary. The establishment guy in North Carolina, Tillis I think was his name, he didn’t even get 50 percent, with all of the backing that the D.C. establishment and the consultant class, he didn’t get 50 percent.”

You can spin politics in numerous ways. Jones was helped by owning one of the best-known names in Tar Heel politics; by a challenger without deep roots in the district; and perhaps by his tea party connections.

But what does seem certain is that if the GOP establishment was trying to send a message to other mavericks, it failed miserably.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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