- Associated Press - Friday, May 2, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - U.S. Rep. Walter Jones has faced other primary challengers in the recent past criticizing him of bucking the president and other fellow Republicans by voting against GOP budgets, or for deciding to oppose the Iraq war as service members continued to die there.

Their campaigns litter eastern North Carolina - the result of underestimating Jones’ staying power in the 3rd Congressional District and familiarity among coastal voters. Jones is now in his 20th year in Congress, and his father, with the same name, served for 26 more in the region before he died in 1992.

“I heard years ago - it might have been from my father - you vote your conscience first, your constituents second and your party third,” Jones, 71, said in a phone interview. “I’m not a puppet - never have been a puppet. I’m doing what I think is right based on the information I have before me.”

But there’s energy and money before next week’s primary behind what looks like the strongest effort to date to unseat the 10-term congressman by his own party members. Taylor Griffin, who grew up in Wilson but worked for years in President George W. Bush’s administration and at consulting firms, moved back to North Carolina to challenge Jones.

Jones’ “voting record has grown out of step with the conservative values of eastern North Carolina,” said Griffin, 38, who now lives in New Bern, adding while “Congressman Jones is a good man, he’s just not a good conservative.

Out-of-state political committees are the big difference this year. Two groups have spent more than $1 million combined with television and online ads and voter contact efforts to oppose Jones and support Griffin, according to federal campaign disclosure reports.

“What’s happened to Walter Jones? When he first went to Congress, he shared our North Carolina values. But now after almost 20 years in Washington, he’s forgotten us,” says the ad from the Ending Spending Action Fund, which told the Federal Election Commission this week it’s spent $732,000 on the 3rd District race.

The Emergency Committee for Israel, a pro-Israel group, also had run a similar ad, citing a Washington-based magazine calculating in 2012 that Jones was the most liberal Republican in Congress.

There was no response to an email request for comment from the Emergency Committee. The group lists Weekly Standard publisher Bill Kristol and social conservative leader Gary Bauer as its board. A spokeswoman for the Ending Spending Action Fund didn’t return a phone call Friday seeking comment. Joe Ricketts, the fund’s chairman, is founder of what is now TD Ameritrade.

Griffin said he’s logged more than 30,000 miles through the sprawling, Republican-leaning district covering all or parts of 22 counties, which reaches from Elizabeth City south to Wilmington and inland to Greenville.

“He says that’s his full-time job - to become the congressman,” said Perry White of Nags Head, leader of the Albemarle-Pamlico Republican Club, which doesn’t endorse candidates in contested primaries. But White estimates club members are split between Jones and Griffin, or perhaps slightly favor the challenger.

Jones, who said he comes home to Farmville every weekend, is producing mailers portraying Griffin as a “registered lobbyist” in Washington who drives a convertible and was once named among the city’s top 50 “party animals” by a D.C. publication.

Jones promotes his record for gun rights and against abortion. While Griffin announced an endorsement this week from Sarah Palin, Jones has endorsements from former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and Dot Helms, the widow of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Jones said he’s best able to protect military bases in his district - Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point among them - from troop reductions in 2015 because if re-elected he’d be the No. 2 Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.

Griffin said Jones’ propensity to alienate colleagues to the point of losing plum committee assignments for voting counter to GOP leadership makes him ineffective. But Griffin said he hasn’t criticized Jones for reversing course and opposing the Iraq war or for seeking the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Albin “Big Al” Novinec of Jacksonville is the third candidate in the GOP primary. The 28-year Marine Corps veteran ran as an independent for a California congressional district in 2012 and hasn’t reported any donations. The Republican who wins will take on Democrat Marshall Adame of Jacksonville in the fall.

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