U.S. Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, a Republican critic of long-term U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, faces another Republican primary fight next year in which terrorism could be a top issue.
North Carolina Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, a retired Army brigadier general who served as deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, floated the idea of a run against Jones this week through comments by a Republican strategist.
If Tata runs he’s likely to have other challengers in the primary. Taylor Griffin, a former aide to President George W. Bush, challenged Jones with Washington Republican establishment backing in 2014, but lost. Since then, Griffin has been active in grassroots politics, attending local Republican events.
Jones on Tuesday declined to comment on any specific potential challengers. Tata and Griffin did not respond to requests for comment.
“Walter Jones is definitely seeking re-election in 2016,” his chief of staff, Glen Downs, said on Tuesday. “He has over a 20-year record of proven service to the people of eastern North Carolina, and he has known all along that the Washington establishment intends to field a candidate to oppose him in the primary.”
The race would put a spotlight on a split among Libertarian-leaning Republicans like Jones who oppose U.S. military intervention around the world and warn of the costs in human lives and taxpayer dollars, and those who argue that the United States must defeat terrorists, such as the militants in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS or Islamic State.
Jones was an early and often lonely Republican critic of the U.S. war in Iraq under Bush. He originally supported the war in 2003, but by 2005 had a strong change of heart and became one of the few Republican opponents.
He also has become known for his differences with his party leadership on other matters. For example, he was one of three Republicans in the House who voted for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009.
Jones has called for cuts in government spending – and he has opposed some Republican budget bills, saying he objected to foreign aid for Afghanistan or cuts in assistance to veterans.
In January he voted against Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio,as speaker of the House. Jones wasn’t alone among Republicans in his opposition, but Boehner won the vote.
Last August, Jones signed a letter to Boehner calling for a debate and vote on whether to authorize expanded military force in Iraq, but the House did not vote.
Jones said in a statement at the time, “The situation in Iraq is a grave one and before sending our uniformed men and women into danger we owe it to them and the people we represent to fully debate the matter and have a vote.”
Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist who said he has spoken to Tata about what it would take to run a campaign, said Tata would be a good candidate.
“He’s very straightforward and not political really,” Wrenn said. He said he believed Tata’s combat duty in Afghanistan would be a plus with voters who are worried about ISIS extremists. “The biggest threat we face is ISIS and terrorism, and here we have a guy who has wrestled in the field with it,” he said.
He said he expected that Tata would make a decision about whether to run soon. Tata is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. He served two tours of duty in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, was brigade commander in the 101st Airborne Division and deputy commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division.
He also earned a mater of arts degree in international relations at Catholic University of America and a master of military art and science in strategic planning at the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. He recently was superintendent of Wake County Public Schools.
Tata lives in Cary and is registered as an unaffiliated voter. Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him to head the state transportation agency in January 2013.
Both Tata and Jones have lobbied federal officials for more money for dredging for the channel at Morehead City.
Jones, who lives in the district in Farmville, has a lot of name recognition. He’s been a member of Congress since 1995 and his father, Walter Jones Sr., was the region’s congressman before him, since the 1960s.
Tata grew up in coastal Virginia and spent time on North Carolina’s Outer Banks when he was stationed at Fort Bragg. He still likes to surf there. He’s also is the author of military thriller novels.
Bruce Siceloff of The News & Observer contributed.