GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina is an unconventional congressman, a Republican almost eager to buck ruling party leaders on issues like the soaring national debt and enduring military presence in Iraq.
But his recent votes against the tax overhaul and a “repeal and replace” plan for President Barack Obama’s health care law have conservatives in the state’s 3rd Congressional District questioning whether he’s doing more harm than good, especially for President Donald Trump. That’s opened the doors for Republican challengers, who may have one last chance to pick off the 12-term representative.
After nearly a quarter-century in Congress, Jones says he isn’t changing. He flatly says he’ll oppose GOP leaders “when I don’t think they’re right.”
“It’s absolutely about principle,” the 75-year-old said in his Greenville campaign office, where he’s gearing up for what he says will be his last re-election bid. “When I leave Congress, I would rather have one thing said about me: ‘I will never question Walter Jones’ integrity.'”
Jones’ chief rival in next week’s primary sees diverging from the party’s president as problematic.
“On all these Trump agenda issues, our congressman is not there voting with this president. He is not there doing the job that we expected him to do,” said challenger Scott Dacey, a Craven County commissioner.
Dacey’s critique got some applause at a recent GOP women’s club lunch.
“I’m a Trump supporter, and I want someone to fulfill his mission,” said Juliet Rogers, 51, of Trent Woods. “I think there’s just some complacency there. I think when you’re in office for 20-plus years, it’s time to figure out something else and try to get some new blood in there.”
The 3rd District’s back roads link tobacco fields, Camp Lejeune and smaller communities in the eastern part of the state, including the Outer Banks north to Virginia. Either Jones or his father, Walter Jones Sr., has been on congressional ballots in the area for 50 years.
The elder Jones, a Democrat, represented the region from 1966 until his death in 1992. Walter Jones Jr., then also a Democrat, lost the party primary to succeed him. He became a Republican and was sent to Washington two years later.
“That’s a name that’s been around for decades,” said Tom Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University in Greenville. He said the younger Jones is “not your rural booming, backslapping personality. Rather, certainly, a word I’d use is ‘sincerity.'”
But Dacey, 55, said Jones has forgotten the needs of the district, where pockets of prosperity around military installations, vacation destinations and giant medical center Greenville are interspersed with stubbornly high unemployment and poverty in rural areas. District voters favored Trump in the 2016 general election by nearly 25 percentage points over Hillary Clinton.
For his part, Jones has emphasized Dacey’s more than 20 years as a Washington lobbyist, primarily for American Indian tribes often involved with gambling casinos. A Jones radio ad refers to him as “D.C. Dacey.”
The third GOP candidate, former Marine Phil Law, finished second to Jones two years ago. After a move for a new job, he no longer lives in the district but is running anyway, citing in part Jones’ vote against the tax bill, with its promises of more money in people’s pockets.
“The people and the residents both deserve better for eastern North Carolina,” the 36-year-old Law said. “My question to the district is: Where is our advocate for our economy?”
Democrats didn’t field a candidate this year — meaning the winner of the three-candidate Republican primary next Tuesday is all but ensured victory in November.
Jones has largely cruised to re-election but has faced tough challenges within his own party, winning by only 5 percentage points in 2014 against a Washington-based consultant who returned home to challenge him. Jones took heat for reversing direction on the war in Iraq, expressing regret for his 2002 “yes” vote. He’s since signed more than 11,000 letters to the families of dead troops, as a penance of sorts.
Jones said he voted against the tax bill because it would increase the debt and against the health care replacement bill because it was rushed and wouldn’t fix the problems caused by Obama’s law.
Dacey went on the attack in recent weeks with television ads seeking to link Jones with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and even liberal billionaire George Soros. Jones has run his own ads highlighting Dacey’s lobbying connections and questioning his support for Trump.
At least one Jones supporter acknowledges disagreeing with some of his votes, particularly the tax overhaul, but appreciates his reputation.
“He says what he means and he means what he says,” said Raynor James, 77, of New Bern, a leader of the Coastal Carolina Taxpayers Association. “I would have voted differently from him, but I understand why he voted as he did.”