At first glance, Congressman Walter Jones would seem like an improbable target for a conservative primary challenger. Since the seven-term North Carolina Republican arrived in Washington as part of the "Class of '94," he hasn't seen an abortion he wouldn't ban, a tax he wouldn't cut, or an evangelical church he wouldn't free from IRS restrictions against electioneering from the pulpit. Yet Jones has alienated some erstwhile allies in his heavily military district with his passionate and outspoken opposition to the Iraq War.
In May, Onslow County Commissioner Joseph McLaughlin announced his plans to challenge Jones for the North Carolina 3rd District seat as a sort of Ned Lamont in reverse. McLaughlin, a former Army Ranger with 18 years of military service, believes his hawkish message will resonate in a district that houses three large bases, including the Marines' Camp Lejeune.
"A number of us have become very concerned about [Jones'] drift to the left, espousing ideas that we don't think reflect the views of the conservative base back in the district," McLaughlin told Congressional Quarterly this spring. "Virtually every major vote on the war on terror, he has lined up with the liberals."
That may be an exaggeration, but unlike most of the Republicans whose handwringing has been grabbing headlines lately, Jones' break with President Bush's Iraq policies has translated into an increasingly antiwar voting record. In June 2005, he joined Democratic Congressmen Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio in introducing the Homeward Bound Resolution requiring the Bush administration to establish a specific timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.
Since then, Jones has continued to reach out across party lines on the war¬¬ -- often a lonely task. Last September, he was the only Republican to attend an informal hearing, organized by the Democratic Policy Committee, in which high-ranking military officials assailed the White House's policies. He was one of just two Republicans to vote for the Democrats' Iraq supplemental bills setting a timeline for withdrawal, and one of four to back a measure that would have pulled out most troops by April 1, 2008. Jones opposed the surge and introduced a joint resolution stating that any expansion of the war into Iran required explicit congressional approval.
The war isn't the only area where Jones has declared his independence from Bush and the Republican leadership. Siding with civil libertarians, he voted against a 2006 reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act. He even voted for a bill that would have defunded Dick Cheney's Office of the Vice President. (The only other Republican to join him was Ron Paul.)
Jones wasn't always so out of step with his party on these issues. Like all but six House Republicans, in 2002 he voted to authorize the war. He received national attention for his crusade to have the House cafeteria call French fries "freedom fries" in protest of France's opposition to the invasion, copying a similar menu revision at Cubbie's restaurant in Beaufort, North Carolina.
But after attending the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq and beginning to question the prewar intelligence, Jones changed his mind. His dramatic conversion has cost him some support. Cubbie's owner Neal Rowland has taken the congressman's picture down from his restaurant's wall and endorsed McLaughlin, Jones's primary challenger. When Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidential election, Rowland was quoted as saying, "France is going conservative, and Walter is going liberal."
More importantly, several Republican county chairmen might back McLaughlin -- or at least distance themselves from Jones. "Disloyalty is something you can't tolerate. That's the way military people look at it," Onslow County GOP Chairman Ronald Cherubini told The Politico. "As a party, we have sent him a letter saying we cannot support you anymore because you're not voting [with] your constituency."
"I have 18 counties, not just one," Jones counters. "A lot of people in the district support my position, including Republicans." He recounts a recent trip back home where he was surrounded by constituents concerned about the war. "I went to Lowes' on July 4 to buy some ant poison. I arrived at 12:20, started talking to people, and it was almost 2 before I left," he told me in his Carolina drawl. "Every one of them agreed with me."
Nevertheless, Jones may have a tough race ahead of him. Republican congressmen who have done as little as vote for the nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's surge strategy have been labeled "White Flag Republicans." Several of them, including such staunch conservatives as Congressman Ric Keller of Florida, have attracted primary opponents. So have leading antiwar Republicans like Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.
Jones and Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland may represent the districts most favorably disposed toward such challenges. Jones' constituents gave 68 percent of their votes to Bush in 2004. And McLaughlin seems to be picking up the establishment support that eluded Ned Lamont in the early stages of his antiwar campaign against Joe Lieberman.
The outcome of the Jones-McLaughlin race will have implications far beyond North Carolina’s 3rd District. Whether Jones survives his primary will say much about the prospects for meaningful bipartisan consensus on Iraq. Despite the war's growing unpopularity and the increasing doubts about it even among Republican legislators, fewer than 10 of them, in both houses combined, vote for antiwar legislation on a regular basis.
A victory for Jones might embolden fellow Republicans such as his North Carolina colleague Howard Coble, who has made pro-withdrawal statements but seldom backed them up with votes, to start taking action, and further divide Republicans on the war issue. But a win by McLaughlin would probably keep GOP legislators, caught between a base that wants to stay the course and a broader electorate that has turned against the war, from splintering much further. It's already true that the handful of Republicans opposed to the war didn't do noticeably better in last year's elections than their pro-war colleagues.
This primary fight will also test the GOP's openness to debate on Iraq and the Bush approach to foreign policy more generally. If dissent can't be tolerated from a congressman as conservative and congenial to military culture as Jones, then it will say much about Republican priorities.
Jones doesn't seem worried. "I support the troops," he says. "I just question the policy." He stops to talk about the more than 6,400 two-page letters he has written to the families of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The congressman signs each letter. He expresses confidence that more Republicans will come around to his way of thinking on Iraq, but either way he knows what he has to do.
"I sign the letters every weekend," Jones says. "That's my mea culpa." Many opponents of the war, like his colleague Abercrombie who calls him "the conscience of this Congress," have embraced Jones' new antiwar advocacy. We'll soon see if military and Republican voters in North Carolina's 3rd District will, too.