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Can Mr. Jones stay in Washington?

By Peter Hamby, CNN National Political Correspondent
updated 12:19 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Some political observers believe Rep. Walter Jones, pictured right, is facing his toughest challenge yet in this year's primary.
Some political observers believe Rep. Walter Jones, pictured right, is facing his toughest challenge yet in this year's primary.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • GOP Rep. Walter Jones has represented his North Carolina district for 20 years
  • Jones, 71, is an anti-war social conservative with a libertarian streak
  • Primary challenger Taylor Griffin, 38, is a former Bush administration official
  • The face off doesn't fit neatly into the tea party-versus-establishment narrative

Buxton, North Carolina (CNN) -- The wind is whipping up as Taylor Griffin stands on a tiny sliver of sand on Cape Hatteras on a recent afternoon, listening to a family whose entire livelihood might soon tumble into the sea. The Atlantic Ocean is just a few feet away, and high tide is coming in. These are the waves that have been steadily eroding one of the country's most storied beaches for a generation, threatening a pencil-thin stretch of barrier islands, the Outer Banks, that produce hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly tourism revenue for the state.

Carol Dawson and her son, Jeff, own several businesses here, including the Cape Hatteras Motel, an oceanfront structure propped up by wooden beams and, these days, piles of sandbags. The Dawsons complain that the federal government — mainly, the National Park Service and their congressman, Rep. Walter Jones — have abandoned them. Their beaches haven't been nourished in decades, crucial access roads have been breached by hurricanes, and endangered sea turtles are offered more protections than the 4,000 or so full-time residents of Hatteras Island.

"Everyone on this beach, every building on this beach, is one storm away from losing everything," Carol Dawson says.

Griffin is promising to help. "If you have a congressman who is focused on your issues, we are going to be able to resolve these things," he says as his dog, a 2-year old barbet, bounces around in the sand. "A congressman who actually calls the Park Service. If you're on the Resources Committee, you get the chairman to call a hearing, and you drag them up publicly and have them explain themselves if need be. It's time to fight back. And that's what I'm here to do."

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A 38-year-old mop-topped bachelor, Griffin is running to unseat Jones, who has represented North Carolina's 3rd Congressional District for 20 years, in the May 6 Republican primary. It's one of the 2014 election's most intriguing primary fights, a face off that doesn't fit neatly into the tea party-versus-establishment narrative that's defined so much GOP infighting over the last four years.

Jones, 71, is an anti-war social conservative with a libertarian streak who regularly bucks his fellow House Republicans on big votes. Griffin is the challenger, a first-time candidate, former Bush administration official and Washington political operative who has the backing of big-spending outside groups. It's a strongly Republican district; the primary winner will likely coast to victory in November.

In a year when the GOP establishment is working hard to box out grass-roots insurgents, Griffin is running on a primary challenge premised on the notion that sometimes it's OK for Republicans to work with the government, and with fellow members of Congress, to get something done.

Griffin is a conventional Republican on the big issues of the day, promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, stand up for the military and oppose abortion and "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.

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But here on the North Carolina coast, the primary is as much about localized issues like federal buoy funding, inlet dredging and protections for fishermen -- and Griffin is attempting to make his grasp of Washington a chief selling point. Unlike Jones, he says he's willing to cut deals, horse-trade and generally play nice with other elected officials and appointees if his district needs it.

"There is a very practical issue of what being a congressman means," Griffin says of Jones. "When you have a congressman who has been ranked the most liberal Republican, Republicans don't trust him. And when you are a Republican, Democrats don't trust you. So you don't have a lot of allies to get things done. You can congratulate yourself for sticking your finger in (House Speaker John) Boehner's eye, but the district is going to suffer for it."

No longer a conservative?

Griffin is correct that Jones doesn't have many friends in Washington, at least among the Republican leadership. He was booted off the House Financial Services Committee two years ago for voting against Boehner one too many times. "I'm not going to sacrifice my integrity for anyone or any party," Jones said after he was removed from the committee, according to The Washington Times. "It's the price you pay. I didn't come up here to be a puppet for anyone. And I think the public back in my district, which is the most important, has seen I'm willing to do what I think is right."

Jones abides some aspects of Republican dogma but flouts others. He is an avowed cultural conservative who wants to trim spending — unless the cuts affect veterans or the poor. He opposes the Affordable Care Act. But he voted in favor of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, infuriating Wall Street, and he opposed several versions of Paul Ryan's budget proposals because they did not cut enough foreign aid.

"He has gone out of his way to aggravate not just the leadership but also the rank-and-file members of the Republican caucus in Washington," says Marc Rotterman, a North Carolina political strategist who advised Jones for more than a decade. "His ability to get anything done is minimal at best. I can't think of one piece of significant legislation he has passed that helped the district in the last 20 years."

Rotterman stopped working for Jones in 2008. "He is no longer a conservative," he says. "He has changed from a Reagan, Gingrich Republican to having the most pro-Obama voting record of any Republican in Congress."

In 2012, National Journal magazine rated Jones as the "most liberal Republican" in Congress, a talking point Griffin lets fly at campaign events. A former Democrat, Jones was first elected to Congress in the GOP tidal wave of 1994. For a decade, he was a loyal Republican, representing a socially conservative district with a heavy population of military retirees and active servicemen. Then the Iraq war rolled around.

A foreign policy clash

At first, Jones backed the military action; he's perhaps most famous for proposing that French fries in the House cafeteria be re-named "freedom fries" in protest of France's opposition to the war. But after attending a memorial service for a Marine sergeant from his district, Jones had a remarkable change of heart. He became a sharp critic of President George W. Bush's foreign policy and began supporting Democratic efforts to withdraw troops from Iraq. In private, Jones was writing thousands of apology letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the years since, Jones has ramped up his anti-war rhetoric and his fierce opposition to foreign aid, drawing the ire of a hawkish outside group that's now running blistering television ads against him in the primary. "Lyndon Johnson's probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney," Jones said at a Young Americans for Liberty conference in Raleigh. Jones supported Ron Paul, the anti-war libertarian icon, for president. Today, he's a board member on the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

The Emergency Committee For Israel, a neoconservative pro-Israel group, has spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on a pair of ominous television ads hammering Jones, saying he "preaches American decline" and opposes sanctions on Iran. "He's changed," one ad says. "Isn't it time your vote changed as well?"

"Jones' constituents may not be fully aware of just how much he's changed and just how far he's gone in terms of support in drastic cuts to the defense budget, an isolationist foreign policy, and forming alliances with kooky and conspiratorial elements of the political scene," said Noah Pollak, the committee's executive director. "We want to make sure that the people of the district understand where he is today and what he stands for."

Jones' isolationist foreign policy might seem out of step with a district that includes Camp LeJeune, the home to one-fifth of the Marine Corps, and the air station Cherry Point. Jones' allies are quick to stress that his opposition to military action does not come at the expense of veterans back home. "Walter has always taken care of us," said Joseph McCammond, an Army and Marine veteran from Morehead City, who said Jones has repeatedly voted to protect benefits for military retirees.

McCammond, a friend and confidante of Jones for decades, said plenty of people in the district disagree with the congressman's views. But they still respect him. "I like people that believe in something and stand for something," he said. "I feel that Walter does. He has always been honest about his convictions."

Aides to Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the race.

Another outside group, the Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC founded by billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts, has invested even more money attacking Jones on the airwaves and in the mail.

"Congressman Jones has opposed the Ryan budget," said Brian Baker, the group's president. "It's pretty simple. Congressman Jones is the No. 1 supporter of the President in the House Republican Conference, and we oppose his re-election for those reasons."

Jones' strongest challenge

Jones has faced tough primary challengers before, most recently in 2008 against Army veteran Joe McLaughlin, but political leaders in the district are starting to agree that Griffin, buoyed by the outside money clogging the airwaves and mailboxes, represents Jones' biggest threat since taking office.

"I am seeing a lot more coming out of the Walter Jones campaign than I can recall in the past," said state Rep. Bob Steinburg, an Edenton resident who is not supporting either candidate. "That would indicate to me that he is taking this challenge very seriously. This is the strongest one."

Like many Republicans here, Steinburg still believes Jones will win.

He has an edge for many reasons, not the least of which is his name. Jones' father represented eastern North Carolina in Congress for almost 30 years before his death in 1992. The younger Jones runs a congressional office with an impressive reputation for constituent services, helping blunt Griffin's claims that he ignores the district.

"When I call him with a constituent problem that's come to me, and when I follow up, I've never seen a case when they weren't helped," said state Sen. Norman Sanderson.

Also complicating matters: The 3rd District is only loosely covered by a trio of small media markets and difficult to penetrate with television ads alone, putting a premium on mail, radio, phone calls, digital efforts and old-fashioned in-person campaigning.

Accompanied by his campaign manager, Doug Raymond, a former talk radio host and area campaign operative, and Dan Ronayne, a GOP strategist and friend from Washington, Griffin has racked up tens of thousands of miles in his truck, navigating the back roads that slice through the forests, swamps and farmland of the tough-to-get-around district. He has made an impression.

At the district's annual GOP convention in Havelock earlier this month, Griffin asked the crowd of roughly 200 activists how many of them had been contacted in person by his campaign, either by the candidate or one of his supporters. Nearly everyone in the room raised a hand. He asked the same about Jones. Only a few hands popped up.

Griffin's biggest impediment, aside from introducing himself to voters, is his reputation as a Washington insider. He grew up in Wilson, keeps a home in New Bern and shares a boat, docked in Wilmington, with his brother. But he went to Washington after college to work for Sen. Jesse Helms, and later for the Bush administration and the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. After President Obama took office, he joined Hamilton Place Strategies, a Washington public affairs firm that represents a variety of investment management funds and financial interests.

Griffin has received campaign contributions from GOP grandees like former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and a raft of former Bush administration officials, including former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and national security adviser Juan Zarate. J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have also given to his campaign.

A Washington insider?

Jones supporters have used all this against him, deriding Griffin as a carpetbagger in local letters to the editor. Jones punctuates his advertisements with the blunt reminder: "He's one of us." Jones recently enlisted Dot Helms, Jesse's widow, to star in a radio ad in which she calls Griffin "a fancy Washington insider."

On the stump, Griffin has tried to turn his Washington experience into a plus. In the Bush administration, he says, he worked in the Treasury Department, scrutinizing terrorist financing. In the McCain campaign, he worked for Sarah Palin and helped her fend off "attacks from the liberal media."

"There are people that are going to criticize me for the time I spent in Washington working for Jesse Helms, or in the White House for George W. Bush after 9/11 tracking down terrorist finances," he said during a campaign stop at the Shipwreck Grill in Buxton. "So if you want to call me a Washington insider for that, guilty."

As a campaigner, Griffin is often reserved and polite to a fault, but he becomes noticeably more animated when defending his resume.

"There are a lot of people who have some admiration for my opponent because they say he is independent and he stands up for what he believes in," Griffin says. "He also votes with Barack Obama, by the way, more than any other House Republican. Still, some people say that's a good thing. The bad thing is, he is not working with anyone. There is nobody that's going to work with him. It's a team sport. It is."

Beyond the hunches of local political watchers, who believe Griffin is gaining late traction but may come up just short on primary day, it's difficult to tell if his message is taking hold. There has been no reliable public polling of the race.

The Crystal Coast Tea Party Patriots, one of the district's leading grass-roots organizations, offered a clue this week when it announced its ballot recommendations for primary day. In the U.S. Senate primary, the group endorsed Greg Brannon, a Rand Paul-backed libertarian, over the GOP establishment's choice, Thom Tillis.

In the House primary, they picked Griffin.

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