GOP Establishment Readying New Primary Challenge for Dovish Rep. Walter Jones

Republicans in North Carolina and D.C. think they’ve found a candidate to beat Walter Jones: a retired brigadier general with nearly three decades of Army experience.

Rep. Walter Jones
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
June 1, 2015, 10:22 a.m.

The Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment is ready to take an­oth­er crack at un­seat­ing Rep. Wal­ter Jones—and it might have found a new can­did­ate to lead the charge.

An­thony Tata, the Re­pub­lic­an sec­ret­ary of trans­port­a­tion in North Car­o­lina and a vet­er­an with nearly three dec­ades of mil­it­ary ex­per­i­ence, is pre­par­ing to run in a primary against the long­time GOP House mem­ber, ac­cord­ing to a half-dozen sources with know­ledge of the planned cam­paign. One source close to Tata, gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly, said the sec­ret­ary is “ser­i­ously look­ing” at a cam­paign but cau­tioned there was not yet a timetable for his de­cision.

His can­did­acy would be the latest Re­pub­lic­an ef­fort to de­feat Jones, a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure with­in the GOP who has spoken out force­fully against the Ir­aq war and for­eign aid to Is­rael. His dovish views have ali­en­ated him from House GOP lead­er­ship and the party’s for­eign policy hawks. Dur­ing Jones’s 2014 cam­paign, a pair of Re­pub­lic­an out­side groups, End­ing Spend­ing Fund and Emer­gency Com­mit­tee for Is­rael, com­bined to spend more than $1 mil­lion try­ing to de­feat the in­cum­bent in his primary.

(RE­LATED: Chuck Schu­mer Wants Kay Hagan Back

Jones, who rep­res­ents the heav­ily Re­pub­lic­an 3rd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict along North Car­o­lina’s east­ern shore, barely squeaked by with 51 per­cent of the primary vote against former George W. Bush aide Taylor Griffin. A primary against Tata could be more dif­fi­cult: The GOP base has grown in­creas­ingly hawk­ish dur­ing the rise of IS­IS and Pres­id­ent Obama’s nuc­le­ar-arms ne­go­ti­ations with Ir­an, so much so that polls show for­eign policy now ranks among Re­pub­lic­ans’ top is­sues.

And Tata has a back­ground that could cause trouble for the an­ti­war Jones—who last week voted against the USA Free­dom Act, the House’s com­prom­ise bill to ex­tend cer­tain pro­vi­sions of the Pat­ri­ot Act—in a Re­pub­lic­an primary. A gradu­ate of the U.S. Mil­it­ary Academy, Tata served nearly three dec­ades in the Army, in­clud­ing a tour of duty in Afgh­anistan, be­fore re­tir­ing as a bri­gadier gen­er­al. Even while act­ing as North Car­o­lina’s trans­port­a­tion sec­ret­ary, he has been a reg­u­lar guest on the con­ser­vat­ive talk-ra­dio cir­cuit to dis­cuss for­eign policy.

His al­lies say the sec­ret­ary’s ex­per­i­ence makes him the ideal can­did­ate for 2016.

“He has seen firsthand—in the field—what it takes to de­feat ter­ror­ists like IS­IS and al-Qaida,” said Carter Wrenn, a long­time Re­pub­lic­an strategist in North Car­o­lina who is ad­vising Tata. “Right now, that’s the kind of lead­er­ship we need in Con­gress. I hope he will de­cide to run.”

Re­pub­lic­an an­ti­pathy for Jones goes deep­er than just the for­eign policy es­tab­lish­ment: In 2013, he helped or­gan­ize an ef­fort to oust John Boehner as speak­er. That move came after GOP lead­er­ship re­moved Jones from his post on the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in 2012, os­tens­ibly be­cause he hadn’t raised enough money for the party.

(RE­LATED: Con­ser­vat­ive Group Launches Ads Against Re­pub­lic­ans

Tata, however, might not have Jones to him­self.

Sources close to Griffin say they “fully ex­pect” him to run again, not­ing that he nearly de­feated Jones the first time and that it of­ten takes two tries to knock off an in­cum­bent. New­comers to the primary, the source ad­ded, will have a dif­fi­cult time in­tro­du­cing them­selves to all corners of a sprawl­ing con­gres­sion­al dis­trict.

But Tata might have one key ad­vant­age: Many Re­pub­lic­ans watch­ing the po­ten­tial primary match­up sug­ges­ted that he, not Griffin, would be the pre­ferred choice of many donors and out­side groups. “Tata is viewed as a more ser­i­ous can­did­ate than Griffin, and he prob­ably will end up with more in­sti­tu­tion­al and es­tab­lish­ment sup­port in the party than Griffin,” said one un­aligned Re­pub­lic­an who has met with Tata about a pos­sible run. “The big ques­tion is does Griffin step down, or does he fight this out?”

(RE­LATED: Vul­ner­able GOP Sen­at­ors Bra­cing for ‘Polit­ic­al Is­sue of the Year’

A fight between Griffin and Tata might be a best-case scen­ario for Jones, who could then watch two es­tab­lish­ment-friendly can­did­ates split the anti-in­cum­bent vote between them.

One former Jones strategist, Bob Ross­er, said he had heard ru­mors about Tata’s pos­sible can­did­acy. They didn’t sur­prise him.

“He’s had primar­ies be­fore, and he had a tough one last time,” Ross­er said. “But [Jones] came out a lot bet­ter any­body prob­ably ex­pec­ted.”

This story has been up­dated with ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion about Taylor Griffin’s plans.

Jack Fitzpatrick contributed to this article.
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