It’s not often that Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, spends his time trying to remove a Republican from office.
But that’s exactly what he’s doing in North Carolina’s third congressional district, where he is trying to knock off Walter Jones, a 71-year-old congressman swept into office in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. His solid Republican district that includes parts of Greenville, the state’s Outer Banks and, perhaps most important, the Marine Corps’s Camp Lejeune and its adjunct city of Jacksonville, known for its pawn shops and “massage” parlors. Now, Jones is facing the first well-funded primary challenger of his career.
It’s former Bush and McCain campaign aide turned public-affairs guru Taylor Griffin, and Kristol and outside groups are pouring a lot of cash into the race to ensure Jones’s demise in the May 6 primary.
The race doesn’t hew to the traditional narrative of the past five years, of a tea-party challenger attacking an incumbent for his coziness with the Washington establishment. Jones is instead being attacked for veering too far from the Republican mainstream.
Kristol is backing an ad that calls attention to Jones’s isolationist foreign-policy views, banking on voters in his district, a generally hawkish bunch, to reject them.
At a time when the longstanding Republican foreign-policy consensus has frayed, and when the views of the party’s potential 2016 nominees range from Rand Paul’s libertarian distrust of foreign entanglements to Marco Rubio’s more hawkish view of America’s role in the world, this battle will test the extent to which a traditional Republican outlook on foreign policy — a muscular defense and a strong support for America’s relationship with Israel — remains a litmus test among the GOP faithful.
Over the past decade, Jones, once voted the “kindest” member of Congress, has done an about-face on foreign affairs, going from the target of liberal ire for his attempt to rename the House cafeteria’s French fries “freedom fries” to one of the GOP’s most ardent opponents of the Iraq War. He is an embodiment of a larger unraveling of the Bush-era foreign-policy consensus that saw, for instance, former Texas congressman Ron Paul rise to some prominence within the party.
But with Jones, the turn of events was so swift that the liberal Mother Jones magazine featured him on the cover of its January/February 2006 issue in a piece that chronicled the Republican congressman’s “road to Damascus.”
Kristol and the group he chairs, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), have gone into NC-03 with an ad buy of around $140,000. “Once upon a time, Congressman Walter Jones was a conservative, but he’s changed,” the ad declares. It slams him for preaching “American decline” and for his refusal to support a resolution declaring support for Israel. “Once upon a time,” the spot concludes, “Walter Jones was right for North Carolina, but he’s changed. Isn’t it time your vote changed as well?”
Kristol says he didn’t pick this fight. “People from North Carolina called me up and said, ‘Hey, this guy was not what he was when he was elected 20 years ago, and people in the district don’t understand how he’s changed on lots of issues, including Israel,’” he tells me. He describes his involvement as a “bottom up” effort. ECI hasn’t supported a Republican primary challenge before, and Kristol maintains he is “not looking around for people to go after.”
Since 2005, Jones, who was not available for an interview, has adopted an increasingly strident tone toward foreign affairs, telling audiences, for example, that former vice president Dick Cheney will go to hell for his role in the Iraq War. “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney,” Jones told a conference of the Young Americans for Liberty last year.
Jones further angered Republicans by voting in June 2005 to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and opposing the troop surge in Afghanistan under the Obama administration. He was one of six Republicans in Congress to oppose tightening economic sanctions against Iran in August 2012, and one of only three GOPers who refused to back a resolution declaring support for Israel in November 2012. He rejects any budget with foreign aid in it.
Last year, he joined the advisory board of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, whose academic board includes a defender of the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. He has appeared on the radio show of Alex Jones, one of the nation’s leading conspiracy theorists, praising the talk-show host for his willingness to “seek the truth and expose the truth.” (Alex Jones regularly argues the truth behind 9/11 involves the American government and Israel.)
Kristol’s attack on Jones could foreshadow similar attacks on other Republicans, such as Michigan congressman Justin Amash, who faces a primary in August, and likely presidential contender Rand Paul, both of whom adopt a more isolationist stance on foreign affairs. Paul drew attention earlier this week when video surfaced of remarks he made before he declared his candidacy for the Senate in 2009 suggesting that Cheney supported the invasion of Iraq to benefit Halliburton, his former employer.
“There’s an actual choice for the voters of their district in North Carolina and we have a point of view on which is the better choice,” Kristol says.
ECI’s executive director Noah Pollak is more blunt. “There’s a pro-Israel candidate and a not-pro-Israel candidate, and so we favor the pro-Israel candidate,” he says. “Jones’s Israel record is a product of his slide over the past several years into the Ron Paul fever swamps, to the point where a few months ago he praised America’s leading 9/11-truther and conspiracy nutcase, Alex Jones. Republicans in his district should know that they have a better option.”
This North Carolina congressional seat doesn’t usually see much of a race. Griffin is the first well-funded primary opponent Jones has faced, thanks in part to the former’s ties to the Washington establishment. His entry into the primary has prompted an infusion of money from outside groups hoping to sway the voters, which few House elections have seen so far.
The political-action committee Ending Spending, funded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, has already spent nearly $200,000 on radio and television ads that echo the themes of Kristol’s spots but home in on fiscal issues, and sources say it has another six-figure buy in the works. One spot cites Jones’s votes against a balanced budget, and in a conversation, Ending Spending PAC president Brian Baker pointed specifically to his votes against the budgets proposed by Paul Ryan (R, Wis.).
“For us, it was an easy and obvious choice to oppose Mr. Jones,” Baker says. “He has voted with President Obama more than any other Republican in the House of Representatives.”
But Jones is no profligate spender. He has consistently opposed the Ryan budget because it doesn’t go far enough. Jones, who opposes nearly all federal spending, has called Ryan’s plan “more of the same.” The North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity ran a radio ad last month thanking Jones for his fiscal restraint, though a spokesman tells me it is not taking a position in the primary battle. Jones has more than once received a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
Jones is, in a sense, an anachronism in today’s Republican party. His strict opposition to foreign intervention and radical fiscal stance puts him on the party’s fringes, but he remains a staunch social conservative at a time when many Republican lawmakers have begun to loosen their views on issues such as immigration and gay marriage. In 2006, Jones vocally opposed the reading of a children’s book that features a gay couple, King and King, in North Carolina’s public schools, saying that he had read a copy of the book in the Library of Congress and was “disgusted by it.”
With Jones’s views better known among voters than they have been before, the outcome of next month’s contest will be a good measure of what issues are swaying Republican primary voters in 2014 — and 2016.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.