North Carolina's Third Congressional District is the home of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, making it one of the most heavily military districts in the country. Next year, it will also be home to one of the nation's most competitive -- and contentious -- Republican primary races.
There is a connection between these two facts. The incumbent is Congressman Walter Jones, who since coming to Washington with a new Republican majority in 1995 has been considered one of the most conservative members of the House. Jones's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 91.9; he achieved a perfect score four times. Jones sits on the House Armed Services Committee, voted to authorize the war in Iraq, and led the "freedom fries" protest when France refused to support the campaign.
Then in 2005, Jones had a change of heart. Moved by a local Marine's funeral and growing doubts about prewar intelligence, Jones became the most vocal and persistent Republican critic of the war this side of Ron Paul. He co-sponsored legislation setting a timetable for withdrawal before most Democrats were willing to take that position and a non-binding resolution opposing the surge. He has continued to compile an antiwar voting record now that the Democrats are in the majority.
Jones received praise from unlikely quarters after his conversion. In early 2006, he appeared on the cover of the liberal magazine Mother Jones. Left-leaning Congressman Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) called him the "conscience of the Congress." But some of Jones's fellow Republicans were outraged.
One example is Onslow County Commissioner Joe McLaughlin, who is challenging Jones in next year's GOP primary. The son of a Coast Guard officer, McLaughlin graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Army Ranger School, and the Naval Postgraduate School. "Since 1994, I have been a supporter of Walter Jones," McLaughlin said in his May announcement speech. But Jones's marked shift against the war made the former infantry officer decide to run for Congress himself.
The Jones-McLaughlin race has been overshadowed by the primary challenges to another antiwar Republican, Congressman Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland. But Gilchrest has a moderate to liberal voting record on a number of issues, including abortion, spending, and guns. By contrast, Jones has been a steadfast pro-lifer, was one of the few members of Congress to vote against both the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind, and has an A rating from the National Rifle Association.
McLaughlin is making the case that Jones's alliance with the Democrats on the war is pulling the incumbent to the left across the board. McLaughlin's website contains a section spelling out Jones's deviations from the party line, under the heading "Walter Jones is not the same person we sent to Washington with the Contract with America."
The particulars: McLaughlin's campaign claims that Jones is the most liberal Republican congressman from the South -- they say ten Democratic members have more conservative voting records -- and the third most likely Republican to side with the Democrats. Although Jones's votes for withdrawal from Iraq and against administration-backed amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are featured prominently, the list isn't exclusively made up of war-related votes.
Jones's support for a Democratic farm bill was considered a violation of the taxpayer protection pledge because it offset increased food-stamp spending with higher taxes on some U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations. The Club for Growth gives him low marks on its 2007 anti-pork report card. And the McLaughlin campaign is emphasizing Jones's vote for an agriculture appropriation without language prohibiting federal benefits to illegal immigrants as a way to counteract the incumbent's hawkish immigration record.
Yet none of this will make as good fodder for ads as the following: Jones voted both to defund the Office of the Vice President and advance Dennis Kucinich's resolution to impeach Dick Cheney. In North Carolina's Third Congressional District, where the Bush-Cheney ticket received 68 percent of the vote in 2004, this is controversial. In a Republican primary, voters may find it unforgivable.
It is nevertheless clear that the war is the defining issue in this race. "When is Walter going to apologize for being wrong about the surge?" McLaughlin asks. "The troops need more than they're getting from him." "I support the troops and I support the funding," says Jones. "I just question the policy."
We'll soon discover which candidate the district's Republicans, many of them current or former troops themselves, support.
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