North Carolina Rep. Walter JonesWalter JonesHillary Clinton brings up 'Freedom Fries' to mock 'cancel culture' Georgia officials open inquiry into Trump efforts to overturn election results Supreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising MORE (R) faces a competitive primary Tuesday from an opponent looking to frame Jones’s independent streak as evidence of disloyalty to President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE.
Jones, a frequent thorn in the side of Republican leadership, has survived tough primaries before. Polling shows him ahead in the primary, which he says will mark his final reelection bid.
But the GOP primary electorate’s ardent support for Trump has given his opponent, Craven County Commissioner Scott Dacey, a new opening to attack the longtime congressman for bucking the party on key votes on tax reform and ObamaCare repeal.
“It feels a little different. It seems a little closer than Congressman Jones’s races typically are. But in another way, it’s the same story on a different day, because he just has overwhelming name ID in that district,” said Donald Bryson, the president of the Civitas Institute, a North Carolina nonprofit that’s done independent polling on the race.
“People in rural areas feel like they’ve been flown over, been thumbed at in urban areas. When someone from here is willing to thumb their nose at leadership, the spark of independence is something they appreciate.”
Jones, who first won the seat in 1994, has regularly scored as one of the more bipartisan members of the House in recent years.
An early supporter of the Iraq War, Jones eventually became one of its most vocal Republican critics. He’s sought to rein in the president’s war powers, over the protests of hawks in both parties.
Jones regularly clashes with GOP leadership, both on legislation and on votes for Speaker. Jones didn’t back then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio) for the gavel in 2015, or Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE’s (R-Wis.) bid that same year. Jones did back Ryan for Speaker in 2017.
The repercussions of those fights are clear in each candidate’s fundraising reports.
Jones has backing from other lawmakers who also relish a good scrap with leadership, while Dacey is supported by allies of the House Republican leadership.
BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE himself is backing Dacey — the former House Speaker sent Dacey a $1,500 donation through his political action committee in the race’s final days.
Dacey also received endorsements from two lawmakers close to Ryan — California Reps. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation Dozens of Sacramento students remain in Afghanistan after US pullout, district says Seven San Diego-area families evacuated from Afghanistan after summer trip abroad MORE (R) and Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesLIVE COVERAGE: Ways and Means begins Day 2 on .5T package Biden faces unfinished mission of evacuating Americans Nunes sues MSNBC, alleging Rachel Maddow defamed him MORE (R).
Ryan’s political team has sent thousands of dollars to dozens of vulnerable incumbents — but hasn’t donated to Jones.
Jones, on the other hand, has the endorsement of House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsGraham found Trump election fraud arguments suitable for 'third grade': Woodward book Allies see rising prospect of Trump 2024 White House bid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US prepares vaccine booster plan MORE (R-N.C.), a vocal Trump supporter who also donated to Jones’s campaign.
Rep. Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterLaura Loomer says she's tested positive for COVID-19 How Donald Rumsfeld helped save the presidency Gun deaths surge in Iowa ahead of loosened handgun restrictions MORE (R-Fla.), who mounted an anti-establishment bid for Speaker in 2015, has also donated to Jones. So have Reps. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieReps. Greene, Roy fined for not wearing masks on House floor Sixth House GOP lawmaker issued K metal detector fine Kentucky GOP lawmaker deletes tweet comparing vaccine mandates to Holocaust MORE (R-Ky.) and Justin AmashJustin AmashDemocrats defend Afghan withdrawal amid Taliban advance Vietnam shadow hangs over Biden decision on Afghanistan Kamala Harris and our shameless politics MORE (R-Mich.), two other lawmakers who regularly break with leadership.
While Jones has often faced primary criticism for his reluctance to toe the GOP line, Dacey has pressed a new opening against Jones now that Trump is in office. Dacey has tried to frame every major vote Jones took against GOP leadership as a vote against Trump’s agenda.
Dacey’s website has a section highlighting “Jones’ bad votes,” in which he slams Jones as a “roadblock to President Trump’s agenda.”
Dacey has seized on Jones’s votes against the tax-reform bill and the GOP ObamaCare repeal plan.
Jones has longed criticized government spending, and opposed the process used to find a GOP replacement for ObamaCare. But Dacey and his allies have framed Jones’s vote against ObamaCare repeal as a vote for obstructing the Trump agenda.
“When you’ve got a congressman who represents a district that voted over 23 points in favor of Donald Trump and that congressman votes against not just one of those issues, but all of them, to me, that speaks volumes about where we are headed and whether or not our representation is maybe out of alignment of where our values are as a community,” Dacey said in late March.
Jones’s allies say they believe that voters understand where the longtime congressman is coming from and want him to vote his conscience. They’ve also sought to attack Dacey for his past work as a lobbyist, attempting to accuse him of some Trump disloyalty of his own by accusing him of being late to join the Trump “bandwagon” himself.
The attacks have turned ugly, with the Dacey campaign accusing Jones in an ad of being “paid for by George Soros.”
That allegation stems from Friends of Democracy, a pro-campaign finance reform super PAC backed by Democratic mega-donor Jonathan Soros, the son of the billionaire financier George Soros, which supported Jones but never gave him any money.
The Jones campaign called the ad “intentionally false and misleading” in a cease-and-desist letter, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, but the Dacey campaign doubled down with a new ad that rehashes the accusations and added that “Jones admits he personally met with liberal billionaire Jonathan Soros to plot liberal votes in Congress.”
There’s been little public polling in the race, but late March polling from Civitas found Jones leading Dacey, 37 percent to 28 percent. A third candidate, combat veteran and 2016 Jones opponent Phillip Law, sat in third place with 15 percent of the vote.
It’s hard to predict primary races, where low turnout can challenge polls. But Jones’s team remains confident he’ll win the right to serve another two years in Congress.
“Walter goes to Food Lion once a week and he says that’s his polling,” Jones strategist Doug Raymond told The Hill, describing the congressman’s trips to the grocery store.
“He gets stopped in the vegetable aisle and someone either says, ‘Hey, you are doing a great job,’ or, ‘What are you thinking?’
“There are some things he still wants to do [in Congress]. I think he is a little sentimental.”