Inside the Race That Will Tell You What North Carolina’s GOP Base Really Stands For

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 1 2014 6:51 PM

Local Hero

Meet the Republican strategist who moved back to North Carolina to beat one of the party’s few anti-war scolds.

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), left, and Taylor Griffin.
"Washington insider" Taylor Griffin, right, is challenging anti-war Rep. Walter Jones, left.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images; Photo courtesy Taylor Griffin for Congress

NEW BERN, N.C.—“I’ve got to show you the 300th-anniversary tourism video,” says Taylor Griffin. “It’s a requirement—you have to see it as soon as you get into town.”

Griffin, who is 38 and stands a decent chance of becoming a congressman this year, guides me inside the sturdy old house he’s using as a campaign office. He hits “play,” and I am introduced to “North Carolina’s Colonial Capital,” a scenic town that looks even more so when a cameraman shoots it from a swooping helicopter on a sunny day. Children buy Pepsi at the store where it was invented. Novelist Nicholas Sparks explains how New Bern inspires his tales of love and beach walks and Alzheimer’s.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Three minutes later I understand why Griffin moved to New Bern last year to run for Congress. He was born in eastern North Carolina, inside the old 3rd District (just outside the boundaries as redrawn in 2011), but he left in the 1990s to build a career in Washington—the late Sen. Jesse Helms’ office, the Bush administration, K Street. After enough people asked him, “What’s up with Rep. Walter Jones?” he returned to the 3rd, where places like this were working their small-town osmosis on him.

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“I’m a creature of eastern North Carolina,” Griffin says. “I always have been. I just worked in D.C. I lived in D.C., saw the lifestyle there, and just don’t have the interest there that I have in my home.”

This is part manifesto, part rebuttal. Jones, who’s 71 and has represented most of North Carolina’s coast in Congress since 1995, is vulnerable because he’s stopped voting with Republicans. It started a decade ago. Jones, who’d lobbied the House to rename french fries as “freedom fries” in the run-up to the Iraq war, turned hard against the military campaign. He voted against war funding whenever it got to the floor, and with damp eyes he chastised Bush administration officials who, he believed, let soldiers die for a lie.

In 2008 a Republican county commissioner challenged Jones for re-election on the grounds that the congressman who represented Camp Lejune should at least stop bashing the war effort. Jones won the primary by 20 points and won subsequent primaries by even more. It helped that George W. Bush left the White House and the Ron Paul wing of the GOP was winning adherents. Jones kept voting against his party and reaching out to anti-war conservatives.

“Lyndon Johnson's probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War,” Jones told a 2013 gathering of the Young Americans for Liberty, a Paul-founded group. “He probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”

The Republican foreign policy establishment could not stand this guy, but nor could it get rid of him. Griffin, party poobahs believe, can fix that, aided by that 2011 map that removed some of Jones’ base. In the last month, ads from the conservative Ending Spending and the self-explanatory Emergency Committee for Israel have hit the district (where TV is cheap) with commercials insisting that Jones has become an Obama-ite. The ECI ad warns that Jones “preaches American decline” and “opposes sanctions on Iran.” Both ads accuse him of being the “most liberal” member of Congress because his votes against Republican bills like the Paul Ryan budgets ran up his score. Former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour both donated to Griffin. The Paul faction, which keeps getting told it’s taking over the party, dreads losing a race like this.

Jones’ response: total culture war, and total derision of his opponent, a “Washington insider” who partied with the enemy and showed up far too often in Politico’s Playbook. Why, Jones is from here; his father, Walter B. Jones Sr., represented this part of the state for 26 years, and more than one early voter tells me that they have seen no reason to reject the new “old Walter.” Jones’ ads define what it means to be an outsider, one who “wouldn’t vote for the Wall Street bailouts or to increase the debt ceiling.” You can trust him, because all the wrong people don’t.

“Walter won’t show up 20 miles of where I’m going to be,” says Griffin on Tuesday, after we meet at one of the two local Tea Party events he’s going to hit that night. “He will make sure that copies of my lobbying registration are on the table when you walk into county conventions.” (The registration, for work Griffin did with a Dubai-based company, is helpfully labeled “DOWN EAST vs. Middle East,” with the latter phrase written out in Arabesque script. Jones’ campaign didn’t answer any questions I sent, and I detected a knowing laugh when I asked for time with the congressman after saying I was a Washington reporter.)

It’s already after 6 p.m. when the two of us reach the Tea Party event. The crowd is coming in slowly, perusing some Americans for Prosperity brochures that the local organizers has placed on some café tables. Griffin works voters, hands out signs—“have some campaign propaganda!”—and gives them his number as a supporter named Verne Thompson sets up a camera to tape that night’s speaker. He’s already voted early, for Griffin and for social conservative Senate candidate Mark Harris.

“I actually have a libertarian streak,” says Thompson. “There are many issues on which I have the libertarian view. They are just nuts on foreign policy. All you’ve got to do is look at the pronouncements of Ron Paul. It’s just not a credible position. Walter votes against aid to Israel, but the United States has no better, more consistent ally in the Middle East than Israel. We give money to the Palestinians, for Chrissake! So I certainly don’t agree with any of Jones’ reservations about Israel.”

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