RALEIGH — In a Congressional district that voted for Mitt Romney by 17 percentage points in 2012, which politician is the “true” conservative is the crucial question in a Republican primary. So it is no surprise that Rep. Walter Jones’s conservative bona fides are already under attack by the two challengers in the race, businessman Taylor Griffin and information technology supervisor Phil Law.
The July 8 entry of Griffin into the race means a rematch for Jones, the 10-term Congressman who beat Griffin by 6 percentage points in 2014 and cruised to reelection in the general. Griffin says this campaign is really a continuation of his last one.
“We needed more time to get to more voters, knock on more doors, to introduce people to what I am trying to do for Eastern North Carolina and for our country,” Griffin said. “We’re building on that foundation that was started with the last cycle.”
Echoes of 2014
The campaign rhetoric sounds much like 2014 so far, with Griffin challenging Jones’s conservativism and Jones blasting Griffin for being a lobbyist and “outsider” and pointing out that the vast majority of Griffin’s campaign funding came from outside the 3rd Congressional District.
“Most recently [conservative group] Heritage Action tied Mr. Jones with Mark Meadows as the most conservative in the delegation,” said a source close to the Jones campaign. “So I’d like to know specifically where Mr. Griffin thinks Mr. Jones is straying.”
Griffin says he deserves some credit for Jones’s current solid conservative ranking, saying that Jones has voted more conservative when he has a primary challenge than when he does not.
“On many issues he’s very conservative. He’s been very conservative on issues of life, for example, but there are other issues where I think he has not been a consistent conservative, and those are the issues where we disagree,” said Griffin.
The Griffin campaign touts that Jones “votes with liberal California Democrat Nancy Pelosi more than any other North Carolina Republican.” But the Jones campaign turns that around as evidence of Jones’s independence from both parties.
“His definition of conservative sounds as though you vote with [Republican] leadership on everything,” said the Jones source. “That’s never been what Walter Jones does and it’s never going to be.”
Law, the former Marine who is also challenging Jones, strikes many of the same themes that Griffin does. The Winston-Salem native, who now lives in Jacksonville, says that Jones is wrong on national security issues.
“We cannot afford to ignore what is going on in the rest of the world like Walter Jones has done for years,” Law’s site says.
A rumored fourth primary candidate, N.C. Commerce Secretary Anthony Tata, appears to be staying on the sidelines for now.
Griffin’s background as a former staffer and lobbyist on Capitol Hill is evident when he criticizes Jones as being principled but ineffective. Referring to Jones’s seat on the House Armed Services Committee and the defense authorization bill, Griffin says that if a congressman in the majority party cannot support a bill coming out of his own committee, it means he is an ineffective member.
“I know he opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but if our troops are going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan, they should have the resources they need to do their jobs,” Griffin said.
Griffin also takes issue with Jones’s votes on budget issues. Griffin says that reforming entitlement programs and balancing the budget will require tough compromises and unpopular votes, and he sees Jones as dodging those choices by opposing numerous balanced spending bills that most House Republicans supported.
Griffin, who grew up in Wilson and now runs a public relations firm in New Bern, says his political model is his former boss Jesse Helms. He stressed his ties to Helms in the 2014 race as well, but the Jones campaign scored a coup by airing a radio ad of Helms’s widow Dot Helms endorsing Jones.
Doug Heye, a political consultant from Forsyth County who lives in Washington, D.C., says that Griffin’s Washington experience will make him an effective lawmaker.
“He’s keenly involved, interested and knowledgeable about the direction North Carolina needs to go in. And importantly — and what is often forgotten — is how to get there,” Heye said.
The Money Race
Speaking of advertising, Griffin says that he thinks the race will be at least as expensive as the 2014 contest, when Jones spent $677,380 and Griffin spent $323,554. Those figures do not count money spent by independent expenditure groups, which the Jones campaign claims tilted heavily toward Griffin.
Griffin reckons his campaign will need to raise at least $100,000 by the Oct. 15 reporting deadline to remain competitive. Jones’s campaign finance filings show he has about $140,000 on hand as of March 31, while Griffin starts the race at about zero. Law has raised about $80,000 since forming his candidate committee in March.
The Jones campaign hopes that a race similar to the 2014 primary will yield a similar result.
“Eastern North Carolina answered the question of whether or not it wanted a Washington lobbyist in Congress, and that answer was ‘no’ in 2014,” said the Jones source. “It will be ‘no’ in 2016.”