Keeping Up with Jones: The North Carolina Congressman Shows That Antiwar Conservatives Can Win-For Now

Article excerpt

LATE LAST YEAR, Walter Jones looked like he might lose his seat in Congress. The seven-term Republican's emergence as a fierce critic of the Iraq War had angered some erstwhile supporters back home. He had a serious primary opponent in Onslow County Commissioner Joe McLaughlin. Influential Beltway conservatives were beginning to set their sights on Jones as well.

A $500-a-head McLaughlin for Congress fundraiser at Arent Fox's downtown law offices last November wasn't attended by an overflow crowd. The best known and most hawkish journalist on hand, David Frum, was there as a cosponsor rather than a reporter. But amidst the hors d'oeuvres and friendly banter, there was a sense of optimism that Jones could be beaten. The most hopeful may have been McLaughlin himself. "I've hammered in signs for Walter Jones," he told me. "But he's gone too far. People in the district are ready for a change."

Some people, perhaps, but not a majority of Republican primary voters. On May 6, Jones dispatched McLaughlin by nearly 20 points. He carried all but three out of 17 counties, including Onslow County, home to both McLaughlin and the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune. Incumbency and a familiar family name--between the congressman and his father, someone named Walter Jones has served in North Carolina's House delegation for all but two years since 1966--surely helped. "Being an incumbent is always a plus unless he's been walking around kicking people in the shins," explains Bob Pruett, Republican chairman for the Third Congressional District, who was neutral in the primary.

Yet Jones didn't always seem like a shoo-in. The Third District houses three military bases and a large number of veterans. President Bush won there in 2004 with 68 percent of the vote. It is, to put it mildly, not the most hospitable environment for opposing the war, and initially Jones didn't: he voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq. In 2003, taking a cue from the Carolina-based Cubbie's restaurant chain, Jones sought to have French fries rechristened "freedom fries" on Congressional menus to protest France's stand against the invasion. French toast also fell casualty.

But Jones soon began to have second thoughts. After attending the funeral of Marine Sgt. Michael Bitz, who left behind a 2-year-old and newborn twins when he was killed in action, the congressman began writing letters to the families of each service member who died in Iraq. Doubts about prewar intelligence gnawed at him, and he continued studying the matter. By June 2005, Jones was persuaded that the war had been launched in error and was co-sponsoring a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

This conversion cost Jones the top Republican position on the Armed Services Committee's Readiness subcommittee, though ranking member Duncan Hunter did grant his request to sit on the Oversight subcommittee. But the political reaction back home was more troubling. McLaughlin, a photogenic and gregarious former Army officer, announced his primary challenge in May 2007. Ronald Cherubini, chairman of the Onslow County GOP, withdrew his support from Jones. "Disloyalty is something you just can't tolerate," he told The Politico. "That's the way military people look at it."

"Most of the polls taken at activist events showed Congressman Jones to be in serious trouble," says Pruett. McLaughlin won straw polls at Republican dinners in five different counties and released his own district-wide polling showing the race neck and neck. The freedom friers at Cubbie's turned against Jones too. Owner Neal Rowland took down the congressman's pictures and offered to host McLaughlin's election night party. "Things are moving as we want [in Iraq]," he told the Raleigh News and Observer. "We're bringing democracy to them."

The McLaughlin campaign sought to link Jones to left-wing groups like MoveOn.org, Code Pink, and the American Civil Liberties Union. …