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 is a Slate political reporter. 

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.

“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.”

Griffin’s campaign manager, a veteran of that 2008 primary against Jones, calls to tell the candidate that he “should have left five minutes ago.” He’s destined to be late to a meeting of the Crystal Coast Tea Party in Emerald Isle, an hour away if you’re lucky. So Griffin hands his number to the Tea Partiers he’d been talking to and walks to a Chevy truck with a “W ‘04” sticker on the back and 216,937 miles on the speedometer. “I’m running this thing into the ground,” he says. “The mileage is terrible.”

We head off, and Griffin talks on and off the record in between phone calls and stories about how he used to drive to the shore. He’d just been endorsed by Sarah Palin; some of the calls, from supporters, are about how best to leverage this burst of free media. “Right after Palin was chosen for the ticket, Steve Schmidt called me up and said, ‘You’re heading to Alaska,’ ” recalls Griffin. “Someone packed my bag and I flew right there.” It was his job to beat “a hundred investigative reporters” to the Palin dirt and give daily spin.

I eventually get around to asking Griffin how much he agrees with Palin. Over the weekend, she’d joked that waterboarding was a way to “baptize terrorists.” That definitely wasn’t the sort of thing Walter Jones would say. What did he think of the quote?

“Well, Sarah Palin’s a lot more quotable than me,” says Griffin. He pauses for a few seconds. “The struggle between civil liberties and national security did not start yesterday and it won’t end tomorrow. Pre-9/11 we went too far in the wrong direction. Now, we need to ask whether we’re swinging the pendulum too far back in the direction before 9/11 that allowed an attack on our nation. But we cannot forget that there are still people in the world who want to destroy Americans and our country and our way of life.”

This is not how Griffin usually talks. When we get to the Crystal Coast Tea Party meeting, at the back of a seafood restaurant, 15 activists are talking about a mounting threat to the state’s voter ID laws and linking it back to Attorney General Eric Holder. Griffin interrupts them with good cheer.

“There is no harder-working Tea Party group or grassroots group in the district,” he says. “People respect you all over North Carolina. They know you all do your homework. You’re talking about the tall-structural ordinance and you’re talking about the school budget. You all understand that government starts at the local level and that citizens have to be on the watch.”

They also deal in congressional politics, and they happened to endorse Griffin by a landslide, after an already legendary interview (“we pelted him with questions,” says one activist) that started at 6 p.m., continued until the restaurant locked its doors, and ended at another bar’s closing time. Griffin’s rewards included a place on the CCTP’s voter palm card and the loyalty of activists who show up at the polls, write blog posts, and call in to radio shows.

“I’ve been working the polls and it’s going at least 4- or 5-to-1 in your favor in the early vote,” one activist tells Griffin. “Today, you throw Sarah’s endorsement in there and that’s taken some people from ‘hm, maybe’ to ‘yeah, OK!’ ”

After the meeting breaks up, as Griffin talks to the organizers (“I usually get a beer with those guys afterward”), I talk to Jim and Pat Nalitz. They moved to the district permanently in 2007, after years of making annual escapes from the Virginia suburbs, and have long pined for a way to oust Jones.

“People here have come to the conclusion that he’s no longer conservative,” says Jim.

“He’s been corrupted by the bubble,” says Pat. “It’s what happens when you get up there.”

“He’s not even a good Republican when it comes to being a conservative,” says Jim. “The other House Republicans don’t even like him.” He stops himself. “Well, that might not be a bad thing.”

“I did support him when he got kicked off the committee,” says Pat.

It’s not easy to hold this kind of Tea Party support, or this kind of Republican. Jones, according to Griffin, is so ineffective that the district won’t be able to get what it needs from the government. Those people employed by the military bases—well, they need to stay employed. But voters want a Republican who’ll say no to most things. On the drive back to New Bern, Griffin tells me he would have joined the Republicans who refused to fund Obamacare “if the defund strategy made sense.” Later, back in his old-new hometown, he reminds me how he started in politics.

“I worked with Jesse Helms, and I think international institutions are largely useless,” he says. “It’s absolutely time to re-evaluate our U.N. dues.”

Griffin buys coffee and baked goods from one of the merchants he now knows by name, and talks through all the “lazy” ways to talk about his race. He’s already read the story about how “insiders” like him are taking over politics. Lazy. He’s read the “Paul vs. neocons” story. “I don’t think Walter Jones fits neatly into the Paul box,” he says. “In the Venn diagram, there’s some cursory overlap, but that’s not who Walter Jones is. The point is that this election is about eastern North Carolina.” Anyway, neocon? “When a label becomes a pejorative, it no longer has any use in describing people.”

We talk a little bit about the National Security Agency, and Griffin takes some pleasure in walking me through the SWIFT program, the terror money-tracking initiative he worked on in the Bush administration’s Treasury Department. Griffin repeats what the administration said when the New York Times broke the news of the program’s existence: There might be blood on Bill Keller’s hands. It strikes me that Griffin and Jones have completely divergent views of what the Bush/Cheney legacy’s going to be.

“I observed George W. Bush as a person who got up every morning thinking about what was right for the country,” says Griffin. “You’ve got to remember, this was a time when we felt the threat of a terrorist attack was very real. It affected all of us. We felt an incredible obligation to protect the country from the next terrorist attack. You have to view every decision made in that context. And in that context, I think history will see him very well. History isn’t written yet. The drafts of history written contemporarily are always much less favorable than the drafts of history that are made with the benefit of perspective and hindsight.”

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