RALEIGH — N.C.’s Congressional District 3 is one of the more closely watched races in the nation as long-time Congressman Walter Jones faces two challengers in the May 8 Republican primary. Jones has already announced that this is his last re-election bid, and no Democrat has filed in the district, so the winner of the primary takes all.
Jones has represented the area since 1994, most recently beating Democrat Ernest Reeves in 2016 with 67 percent of the vote. Jones has veered from party-line votes repeatedly, particularly over the past year, voting against the Obamacare repeal bill and being one of 12 Republicans who voted against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Jones said he was concerned about how much it would add to the federal deficit. No other Republican in the Washington delegation from N.C. voted no.
“Congressman Mark Meadows, head of the Freedom Caucus — he is strongly supporting Congressman Jones, he has campaigned for him,” said Doug Raymond of the Jones campaign. “He and Congressman Jones are saying the same thing, they knew that Jones’ vote was not going to be the deciding vote, it had enough votes to pass. It was a vote of conscience to try to draw attention to the mounting deficit and that’s exactly what it did.”
Jones faces Republicans Scott Dacey and Phil Law in May. Law lost to Jones in the 2016 Republican primary, but Dacey is a relative newcomer to high-profile N.C. races like this one. Campaign finance reports show that, as of Dec. 31, 2017, Jones had about $100,000 in cash on hand for his campaign. Dacey has out-raised him, ending 2017 with $224,000 cash on hand.
“I am so thankful for the support of 200+ grassroots donors. They all agree that Walter Jones is simply out of touch with our district — and that’s why they have contributed to the campaign,” Dacey said in a press release.
Dacey is currently vice-chairman of the Craven County Commissioners and served at various levels within the county GOP. He also served as finance chair for the NCGOP in 2006. He was formerly a partner in northern Virginia-based lobbying firm Pace LLC. He also served as the chief of staff for the National Indian Gaming Commission, and in the Bush White House as legislative liaison to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“I valued my time working on behalf of the Indian tribal governments throughout the United States, helping them access better health care for their members, address education needs on their reservations and to protect their tribal lands for future generations,” said Dacey. “They are historically the most disadvantaged and forgotten segment of our society. It has been a sincere honor to work and learn from these tribal leaders.”
Dacey was initially asked to consider running for Congress many years ago by Jones himself during a dinner in Washington, D.C.
“That conversation sparked my interest in serving as a county commissioner. However, over time my frustrations with his service have grown,” said Dacey. “Once I started to recognize how little support Jones was giving President (Donald) Trump, I’d had enough.”
Now, Jones has started a series of radio ads criticizing Dacey’s big donations to Republicans and Democrat lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Speaker Paul Ryan, as “funding the establishment,” but Dacey did not donate to Trump.
“We believe that the evidence is there that this is nothing but a campaign strategy,” said Raymond. “That he really doesn’t support Trump but he claims to because he knows the people here do.”
“It shows once again that he is out of touch and has no idea what I’ve done,” said Dacey. “I was in eastern N.C. during the election putting up signs for Trump, greeting his family when they visited and shared with them the concerns of people in our communities.”
Jones’ campaign is also focusing on his “independence” from the party initiatives. In addition to his “no” votes on the tax cuts and Obamacare repeal, he was the first Republican to co-sponsor the “Protecting Our Democracy Act,” a Democrat bill calling for a bipartisan citizen commission to investigate Russia collusion in the 2016 elections and any possible involvement with the Trump. One other Republican has co-sponsored the bill, along with 198 Democrats. But his supporters say that Jones casts votes of conscience, usually conservative, but sometimes not, in order to draw attention to issues he believe are critical. Raymond says he’s a workhorse, not a show horse.
“We don’t poll — we’ve seen over the last few years, polling can be skewed,” said Raymond. “Walter polls every week when he goes to the grocery store and runs into people. That’s just the kind of guy he is. He’s very reflective of the low-key work ethic of the folks here. … He goes about doing what he thinks is right. We don’t sit around thinking about how are we going to spin what you do, but he’s not going to change who he is to garner a few more votes.”
Dacey also started running local radio ads, calling Jones a “roadblock to President Trump’s agenda” and offering Jones’ voting record for download on his campaign website. The ads attempt to link Jones’ policy agenda to that of Democrat Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“These ads help us begin to spread a very clear message across the district,” Dacey said. “And that is that when Walter Jones actually shows up to vote, he votes against President Trump and against the interests of his constituents. I’ll support the president and vote in the best interests of eastern North Carolinians as their new congressman.”
Jones filed five bills in February that he says are aimed at “draining the swamp” by putting restrictions on use of congressional funds for vehicle leases or first-class airline flight and limiting staffers and members ability to lobby on Capitol Hill.
“You’ll never hear anybody say he’s part of the establishment that’s because he’s always done this,” said Raymond. “Votes on the deficit, votes on foreign aid, he’s not afraid to stand up.”
Jones’ bucking of party leaders isn’t new. In 2015, Jones and Congressman Mark Meadows (NC-11) were two of 25 lawmakers who voted against then-House Speaker John Boehner for another term at the helm of the U.S. House. Boehner was ultimately re-elected, but the defections weakened his leadership authority.
“They just know that that’s Walter,” said Raymond of District 3 constituents. “They know that occasionally he’s going to go against the party, against the establishment, to stand up for something he feels passionate about. And that contrasted with someone who is a career lobbyist for Indian casinos who’s given $170,000 to establishment candidates.”
Jones also opposed the Iraq War, despite his initial support for it after Sept. 11, 2001. He demanded in a public 2006 House Armed Services Committee meeting that former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle “apologize” to the nation for “misleading” lawmakers on grounds for the war. Jones also made national news when he requested that the U.S. House cafeteria replace French fries on the menu with “freedom fries.”
Insiders on Capitol Hill who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Jones’ independence has led to him often being passed over for leadership roles in the party and on committees, despite twelve terms in office, The National Republican Congressional Committee has not yet waded into the fight with big money for Jones but says, “We will do what we need to keep our incumbents in Congress,” according to NRCC regional press secretary Maddie Anderson. Speculation is widespread that outside Republican groups are likely to come in strong for both candidates ahead of the primary.
Congressional District 3 is a relatively conservative area of eastern N.C. Most of the district voted for Trump in 2016, except Pasquotank County, which voted for Hillary Clinton. Jones is N.C.’s longest-serving representative in the U.S. House having been elected with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) during the 1994 Republican sweep and the GOP’s Contract with America, led by Newt Gingrich.