A GOP iconoclast faces his biggest test

The Republican establishment is hoping to defeat one of the House's most iconoclastic members on Tuesday.

Former Bush administration official Taylor Griffin’s quest to knock off longtime Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) doesn’t fit neatly into the Tea Party vs. establishment box of many GOP primaries, though. 

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Instead, it’s national Republicans who are rallying against Jones, an unpredictable legislator who has been a thorn in leadership’s side for much of the past decade with his sometimes libertarian, populist views. 

And it’s Griffin, a former Treasury Department official during George W. Bush's administration, who’s running with insiders' support. The 38-year-old grew up in eastern North Carolina’s Outer Banks and has spent more than a decade in Washington. He moved back home to challenge Jones last fall, painting him as out of step with the district.

“On social issues [Jones] is quite conservative, but on a lot of other issues, he's aligned with Democrats, and people are looking for a principled conservative that shares their values,” Griffin tells The Hill.

The challenger has won the backing of a number of establishment Republicans in Washington, including many of his former co-workers in the Bush administration. And he’s drawn support from some Tea Party favorites as well. Griffin recently secured an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who he worked for while on the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. Palin's endorsement a big deal in the rural, conservative district.

Jones, a former Democrat with a libertarian streak, has one of the more unusual voting records in the House. 

After initially supporting the war in Iraq, Jones became a leading Republican critic of President Bush of the war, following an emotional self re-examination after attending a local Marine's funeral. Afterward, he aligned himself closely with then-fellow Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), eviscerating Bush's foreign policy on a number of occasions.

He’s also increasingly split with party leaders on fiscal issues, voting for Democrats’ Wall Street reform bill and against Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budgets because he doesn’t think they cut enough foreign aid. He also refused to endorse both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) for president, backing Paul both times.

Republican leaders stripped Jones of his committee assignments in late 2012. A month later, he was one of nine to vote against keeping House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as head of the conference. 

To pull off the coup against the 10-term congressman, Griffin has had some big help in the race. 

The Emergency Committee for Israel, a neoconservative group run by The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol and evangelical leader Gary Bauer, and the fiscally conservative Ending Spending super-PAC have combined to spend nearly $1 million against Jones. A number of big banks, including JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America have also donated to Griffin because of Jones’s vote for the Wall Street regulatory reforms.

“Walter Jones is rated the most liberal congressman in the Republican conference. He's voted with President Obama more than any other Republican in Congress; he's voted against the Paul Ryan proposed budget and other fiscally conservative measures. That's why we oppose his election,” Ending Spending President Brian Baker told The Hill. 

A number of Bush veterans are also coming to the aid of their former colleague. 

“I’ve known him for years, and he's superb. And Walter Jones is a real headache for Republicans. … On a host of measures, Walter Jones deserves to be defeated,” former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told The Hill last month.

Jones has raised and spent little on the race, and local Republicans say Griffin has more visible on the campaign trail. 

But the longtime congressman is well-known in the district and will be tough to beat. He has held the seat for two decades and is known locally for fighting hard for the district’s large veteran population. His father represented the seat for decades before him, and he’s beaten back a number of primary challenges in the past.

Jones has sought to paint Griffin as a Washington insider, attacking him for his years in the Beltway. Jones’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this article. 

Some local Republicans have been critical of Griffin’s campaign.

“This guy doesn't know anything about us down here. He says he's from North Carolina; that's fine, but he's not from here … and I don't see him as being an acceptable alternative to Congressman Jones,” North Carolina state Rep. Michael Speciale (R) told The Hill.

Speciale said he has some issues with Jones’s voting record and thinks it’s time for someone new to represent the district. But he said Jones works hard for the area, and he sees Griffin as an outsider using Washington money to try to steal the seat.

“What he's doing lacks integrity, and if you don't have integrity, I don't know what you have,” he said. 

Griffin has been touting Palin’s support as a way to inoculate himself against Jones’s attacks that he’s part of the establishment. His final TV and radio ads all feature Palin’s endorsement.

“I worked for Sen. Helms, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. If that's being a D.C. insider, I'm guilty as charged, but I think most people see that as the experience needed to serve effectively as a congressman,” he said.

“We think it was probably neck and neck last week, and going in to the final stretch, we've gained a lot of momentum with the Sarah Palin endorsement and have the advantage on Tuesday.”

Local Republicans say this has been Jones’s toughest challenge since he won the seat, but many expect him to prevail on Tuesday.

“My sense is Walter Jones will prevail. I've talked to a lot of folks who aren't necessarily enthralled by some aspects of his voting record, but when it comes right down to it, they're saying they're going to vote for him anyway,” said North Carolina state Rep. Bob Steinburg (R), who is neutral in the race. “I think Walter is pretty safe."

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