In a race that saw big outside money spent by “independent groups,” the Washington establishment suffered a defeat. I am not talking about the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate race to face Sen. Kay Hagan, which, by the end, was not really competitive; I am talking about the 3rd Congressional District in eastern North Carolina.
The incumbent, Rep. Walter Jones Jr., defeated challenger Taylor Griffin in a race that saw Griffin’s D.C. and New York allies independently spend more than a million dollars to defeat Jones. This does not count the money Griffin was able to raise for his campaign from the same well-connected crowd of insiders, enabling him to out raise Jones in the final reporting period. By the way, a million dollars goes a long way in the Eastern North Carolina media market.
Proportionally, more money was spent in the 3rd District primary than was spent on the U.S. Senate primary when compared to candidate spending. The disparity is even greater when you factor in the cost of the 3rd District media market versus the cost of statewide media buys. This is not an indictment of independent expenditures or of more money in campaigns. In fact, campaign spending of all types is good – it drives turnout. In the 3rd District, the turnout was up over 60 percent from the primary in 2010. That meant voters learned more about both candidates, and they preferred the incumbent to the Washington insider.
Why did this race attract such big money in a primary? Walter Jones is a 20-year incumbent, first getting elected to Congress in 1994 after having served multiple terms in the state legislature. Jones has had a record that can best be described as independent. He is solidly conservative on social issues and has opposed increasing the debt limit and the bailouts Congress passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
What appears to be his biggest flaw to his colleagues in D.C. (but not his voters) was his falling out with the House leadership. This resulted in his being removed from his seat on the Financial Services Committee. He was one of several GOP members removed from committee assignments immediately after the 2012 elections. These members were generally seen as too independent and willing to vote against the wishes of leadership. Others targeted by the GOP leadership included Reps. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) and Justin Amash (R-MI).
The 2014 campaign against Jones looks like an attempt to send a message to other potential House GOP renegades that the leadership and D.C. establishment could and would come after them – and beat them. There also may have been some score-settling left over from Jones’ position shift in support of the war in Iraq to a vocal critic, even calling for the impeachment of President Bush. (As an aside, Jones was the congressman who proposed renaming French fries “Freedom Fries” over the French refusal to support our efforts in Iraq.) In trying and failing to unseat Jones, Republican leaders may have hurt themselves by showing both spitefulness and weakness.
The other interesting story in this election battle was the fascination of the media and lobbyists in D.C. with this race. This probably is a direct result of Griffin’s having operated in the bureaucratic, media and communications circles in D.C. He worked in the George W. Bush White House and the Treasury Department, and even formed his own communications and lobbying firm in D.C. Griffin hailed his roots in the Old North State, but that wasn’t enough, apparently, to erase the taint of his deep connections with the Washington Beltway.
For the reporters and politicos in D.C., his running and their belief that he was going to win was a validation of their own worth and wisdom. Folks who make and report the news in Washington, D.C. have a worldview which includes the belief they truly are the best and brightest. Most of them think they are far smarter than the folks that get elected to office and that if they were in charge things would be better. If Taylor Griffin was able to return to NC, successfully run for office, and return to the capital as an elected congressman, then that validated their opinions of their own importance – because he is them.
So on May 7, 2014 we can look ahead and see a landscape a little more dangerous for the GOP leadership in the U.S. House. Do they try and force their members to do things they don’t want to do? Cut deals with the president on immigration, spending and debt? Pass more crony-capitalism legislation advancing the special interest of big businesses and banks? The election yesterday makes it much less likely that they will be able to force their will on individual members. Walter Jones was in a uniquely vulnerable position that gave a campaign like Griffin’s a good chance to succeed – but it didn’t.
There is a saying that if you mean to shoot someone, make sure you kill them. In this case Walter Jones is very alive and dangerous. The fact that the party fat cats failed means independent members of the Republican caucus will be emboldened to resist. For the country that is probably a good thing.