Walter Jones’ willingness to vote against his Republican colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives has made the long-serving Eastern North Carolina congressman one of the most independent.
It has also made him a target for a primary challenger. Scott Dacey, a Craven County commissioner and federal lobbyist for Native American tribes, outraised Jones in 2017 and snagged endorsements from former Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Herman Cain.
But it’s another Republican that Dacey had in mind when he opted to challenge Jones in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District.
“I’ll be the very best lobbyist Donald Trump could possibly have serving in Congress to advance his agenda,” said Dacey, a Craven County commissioner and federal lobbyist for Native American tribes. “Congressman Jones simply has not been there to be part of the Trump agenda. If I can help move the country forward in helping to move the president’s agenda forward, I’d like to be part of that solution.”
Trump won the district, which covers the northern half of the North Carolina coast, by more than 20 points.
Dacey points to several Jones votes, notably his vote against Trump’s biggest domestic policy victory so far, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Jones was one of 12 Republicans to vote against final passage of the tax bill and is the Republican House member least likely to vote with Trump, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
Jones refuses to vote for bills that add to the national debt, like the tax bill that is projected to add $1.5 trillion.
“I can’t do it,” he said. “If that tax bill was not paid for and if President Obama had been pushing the tax bill, would you want me to vote for it? I don’t think so. Well, now it’s pushed by Mr. Trump, they want you to vote on it. That’s what is so hypocritical.”
Dacey said the national debt is not enough of an excuse for Jones to avoid voting for bills that fund the military and the rest of government.
“He votes against things but doesn’t bring forth any concrete, substantive solutions himself,” Dacey said.
Jones has made national news for his public remorse at voting for the Iraq War in 2003. He has worked hard to make amends, writing letters to the families of deceased military members and pushing unsuccessfully for a new debate on America’s war authorization in Afghanistan. He has also taken up several long-running military causes, working to clear the names of military members who he says are wrongly accused of misconduct or mistakes.
“I know I’m going to be always hit – I’m independent. I’m a conservative. I wouldn’t be speaking so much about the debt, trying to bring our troops home from Afghanistan, stop trying to build empires around the world,” he said. “The quality of your constituent services is what you’re really judged on. A percentage of the people are really into the policy and everything, but the majority of the people, I’ve found out, want to know, if they call you, will you try to help them. And I think we have that reputation.”
Jones, whose father was a Democratic congressman from eastern North Carolina from 1966 until his death in 1992, has handily won re-election to the seat since first winning it in 1994, never dipping below 61 percent in any general election since. He faced a tough primary challenge in 2014, narrowly winning with 50.9 percent of the vote.
That popularity, however, has not translated on Capitol Hill. Despite his long tenure, Jones is not a chairman or vice chairman of any committee in the Republican-held House. Speaker Paul Ryan donated $5,000 to the re-election bids of seven North Carolina representatives last week, but Jones was not on the list.
Dacey, who works with Republican members as part of his lobbying work, said his first priority is expanding on those relationships to help Eastern North Carolina.
“Because our congressman continues to vote no, he has burned a lot of bridges with key committee chairmen. When he votes against the defense authorization bill, he hurts our ability to be successful in funding the projects (we need in our district),” Dacey said. “Those relationships needs to be repaired. I will make certain those relationships are repaired.”
Dacey tapped his previous relationships with Huckabee, who Dacey worked for during his presidential run in 2008, and Cain to snag their endorsements. Dacey raised more than $264,000 last year, including several donations from Indian tribes, and has more than $224,000 cash on hand. Jones raised $200,000 and has about $100,000 cash on hand.
Both Jones and Dacey said that other candidates could enter the race next week when North Carolina’s filing period begins. No Democrat has filed campaign finance paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission. The primary in North Carolina is May 8.