A well-funded conservative outside group is devoting significant money to an attempt to make North Carolina GOP Rep. Walter B. Jones the first incumbent to fall this cycle, but Republicans in the state are skeptical the sudden burst of spending will ultimately be enough to take Jones out.
With the investment by Ending Spending Action Fund, a super PAC formed by TD Ameritrade Founder Joe Ricketts, Jones faces what will likely end up being the best-financed primary opposition of his 20-year congressional tenure. The group reported last week spending $156,000 on an ad attacking Jones, one of the last remaining Republicans from the class of 1994, for his "liberal" voting record and for "losing his North Carolina values."
It’s a significant ad buy in the 3rd District, located along the Tar Heel State's coast. But while Republican strategists say the outside money may give Jones his most competitive challenge to date, they also downplay Jones' chances for defeat in the May 6 primary.
“People see the money, people see the outside spending, they see who is spending from the outside — you have Joe Ricketts’ PAC, which is a recognizable name — and they see that and think [Jones] is vulnerable,” said one unaffiliated Republican operative. “But I just think Walter’s entrenched in that district. Walter’s father was a congressman from that district before him, and I just don’t see him as being vulnerable." Jones' top primary challenger is Taylor Griffin, a former aide to President George W. Bush and operative at the communications firm Hamilton Place Strategies. He moved back to North Carolina to challenge the incumbent and has criticized Jones for his conservative credentials .
Jones entered the election year with $127,000 in cash on hand — a meager war chest when compared to the might of the super PAC’s capabilities. The group spent $13 million last cycle, mostly to assist Republicans in the presidential and Senate races, according to Political MoneyLine . Jones' first-quarter fundraising report, due April 15 to the Federal Election Commission, will shed light on whether he has picked up the pace in the wake of the primary challenge.
Griffin reported just $87,000 in cash on hand by the end of last year, which doesn’t provide him with much to introduce himself to voters in his own advertising — a crucial component to go along with the outside help. And unaffiliated North Carolina Republicans noted that Griffin’s D.C. background — his recent move to the district and the Capitol Hill fundraiser headlined by a scroll of D.C.-based Republican operatives — could prove to be an issue for him in the race.
Still, they added that if the money keeps flowing into the district, Jones will have to quickly come up with the funds to defend himself in the six-week run-up to the primary.
“It’s going to be a tough sell to say Walter Jones doesn’t have North Carolina values, but if they have money it will be real,” North Carolina Republican operative Carter Wrenn said.
Jones was elected as a Republican to the 3rd District in 1994 after failing two years earlier as a Democrat to succeed his father, Democratic Rep. Walter Jones Sr., in the 1st District. He has since built a brand as a social and fiscal conservative. His turn against the Iraq War invited a competitive 2008 primary challenger, but Jones vastly outspent him and won with 59 percent of the vote.
The incumbent's votes over a 10-term career don’t put him squarely within any sortable group of members on Capitol Hill, something Republicans say could actually help him in a district with a strong libertarian lean.
“Walter Jones has been a household name for 50-plus years, so it’s a tall order in any stretch of imagination,” said another unaffiliated Republican operative in the state. “He’s been his own guy. If you ask about Walter Jones, people say he’s very much a social conservative and he does take stands sometimes that defy conventional political thinking. But people respect him for his reasons behind them all.”
Correction 1:55 p.m. The story originally stated Jones succeeded his father. He was elected in a neighboring district.