Politics & Government

Walter Jones’ widow makes her preference clear in Republican runoff to fill his seat

Updated June 20, 2019 with Joe Anne Jones’ comments.

The widow of former U.S. Rep. Walter Jones called one of the candidates running to replace him “a dear friend” and her husband’s “kindred spirit,” lending strong backing to Kinston pediatrician Joan Perry weeks before the Republican primary runoff in an Eastern North Carolina congressional district.

The race between Perry and state Rep. Greg Murphy, a Greenville urologist, has attracted outside money and attack ads — dividing representatives from across the country.

Now Jones, who was married to her husband for 52 years before his February death, is giving her opinion.

“Dr. Joan and Walter share the same Christian beliefs and staunch conservative values,” Jones said Thursday in Greenville. “That’s what it takes.”

Walter Jones, a Republican who held the seat since 1995, said 2018 would be his last campaign. He ran unopposed in the general election in the 3rd Congressional District. His father, Walter B. Jones, Sr., represented much of the same area in Congress as a Democrat from 1966 to until his 1992 death.

Murphy and his campaign have said Jones planned to support him in 2020, but a Republican official in the district has disputed that, according to The Daily Advance.

Jones said Thursday that her husband would have avoided endorsing in the race. She said Perry did not ask her to speak, but that she wanted to “clear up some misconceptions of Walter Jones’ endorsement of anyone for the 3rd Congressional District.”

“He thought it was very unwise for anyone to ever endorse someone else in the primary when one day you might have to face that half of the electorate you just stirred up,” Jones said.

She said Murphy was her husband’s surgeon and “I’ll always be grateful to him for saving his life. But that doesn’t have anything to do with Congress. This is a whole different show.”

Jones did not endorse Perry nor say who she would vote for, but her affection for Perry was clear. She called Perry her “dear friend” and referred to her as “Dr. Joan,” and compared the attacks her husband took from Washington to the ones Perry is facing.

“They’re kindred spirits. Nothing came to Walter more strongly than his faith in God. She’s the same type of person,” Jones said. “I recognize one when I see one.”

Jones said that she had grown accustomed to her husband’s work schedule, which kept him in Washington, D.C., much of the workweek and home on the weekends. She said since his passing, those weekends have been difficult for her and, especially, the couple’s only child, daughter Ashley.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s easy on the weekends,” she said.

Taking sides

Murphy and Perry finished first and second, respectively, in a 17-way Republican primary in April. No candidate received 30 percent of the vote, prompting a runoff on July 9. In-person early voting began Wednesday. The sprawling district covers all or part of 17 counties, including much of the state’s coast.

State Rep. Phil Shepard, who finished third in the primary, will hold an event and endorse Perry on Friday, her campaign said.

Rep. Mark Meadows, who represents far western North Carolina, and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan — leaders of the House Freedom Caucus — have endorsed Murphy. Jordan visited the district earlier this month. Murphy is expected to join the invite-only group if elected to Congress.

“I’m 100 percent confident that if I need a fighter here in Washington, D.C., he will be a fighter. I’m not 99 percent confident. I’m not 95 percent confident. I know that when push comes to shove, and we’re going to drain the swamp, he’ll be there,” Meadows told The News & Observer in an interview earlier this month.

House Freedom Action, a political action committee tied to the House Freedom Caucus, ran an ad attacking Perry as a “lying Nancy Pelosi liberal.” The ad accused Perry of opposing President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration on border security. In a March radio interview with WTIB, Perry expressed concerns with the precedent that declaring a national emergency could set, a position put forth by Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican.

Meadows himself, in an interview with Politico, said he was concerned about the “slippery slope” it might create and suggested there was reluctance in the House to the maneuver, though Meadows said he would back whatever decision Trump made. Tillis eventually voted to support Trump’s emergency declaration after writing an op-ed in The Washington Post saying he would oppose it.

Meadows said he considered Perry’s initial response “troubling” and said she “sided with Thom Tillis and the Democrats against the President of the United States on securing our border.”

Perry called the attack ad false.

“Constitutional conservatives recognize that Congress should fund the wall and protect our border. That’s how we solve this problem for good, and that’s always been my position. After I researched the emergency powers of the President, I unequivocally supported his actions. I’ve said so numerous times. For anyone to say otherwise is a lie,” she said in a statement.

Meadows and the Freedom Caucus are at odds with Republican women in the U.S. House. There are just 13 Republican women in the House, but all have backed Perry either with endorsements, campaign contributions or personal support. Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Elise Stefanik of New York made public endorsements.

“We’re trying to identify the strongest Republican women candidates. She clearly is one of those,” Stefanik said. “What I feel strongly is she is the most qualified candidate. She’s the most conservative candidate. I’m looking forward to seeing her win.”

U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican, and 2019 3rd district candidates Mike Payment and Celeste Cairns have also endorsed Perry. FreedomWorks and the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group which backed Perry early on, have endorsed her.

Perry said Murphy endorsed Medicaid expansion in the state with his “Carolina Cares” bill in the state legislature. Murphy has endorsed Medicaid block grants on the federal level.

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Winning For Women and its PAC, which backs Republican women running for federal office, took out an ad hitting Murphy as a “typical politician” who had backed the Affordable Care Act and disparaged Trump in 2016 as “the worst top of the ticket in our history,” quoting him from a Daily Reflector article. Murphy told the paper it was a “flat-out lie” and he intended to sue.

The paper said Murphy said in a 2016 interview: “I’ve had people say they don’t like Trump, I’ve had many, many say they don’t trust (Democratic nominee) Hillary (Clinton) and I’ve had many people say it’s the worst top of the ticket we’ve had in our history.”

Trump carried the district by more than 23 points in 2016 in the presidential campaign against Clinton. During the initial primary nearly every mailer — and there were many in the 17-way race — contained a photo of Trump or an AR-15, said Doug Raymond, Murphy’s campaign manager.

“You would be foolish in this district not to align yourself with Trump. For us, it’s not a strategy. It’s a stance. He agrees with what the President is doing. It’s a refreshing change to have someone doing exactly what they campaigned on,” Raymond said.

Murphy has been endorsed by several pro-Trump groups, including Students for Trump, Women for Trump, as well as the Tea Party Express, the National Rifle Association and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Raymond said.

The winner of the Republican runoff will face Democrat Allen Thomas, Libertarian Tim Harris and Constitution Party candidate Greg Holt in the Sept. 10 general election.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.