When praising one of his colleagues, Congressman Walter Jones is quick to commend steady commitment to principle. It’s a trait he knows something about. Since winning his House seat in 1994, the seven-term North Carolina Republican has been one of the most reliable Christian conservatives in Washington. “I’m just doing the best I can with every day God gives me,” Jones drawls. But back home, some members of his party worry that he has changed.
On one issue, at least, Jones clearly has. The steadfastly pro-military congressman—his district houses a fifth of the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune—drew headlines and appreciative chuckles from talk-radio listeners when he had French fries renamed “freedom fries” on congressional menus to protest France’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But Jones didn’t limit his support for the troops to publicity stunts. He wrote letters to the families of over 2,000 servicemen killed in Iraq and attended the memorial services of fallen Marines. These tasks, combined with growing doubts about prewar intelligence, turned Jones into his party’s most impassioned opponent of the war—and perhaps the most legislatively active.
Jones co-sponsored legislation setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. He has also introduced a joint resolution stating that any expansion of the war into Iran must be expressly authorized by Congress. Not everyone is happy with his change of heart on Iraq, however. Onslow County Commissioner Joseph McLaughlin has decided to challenge him in next year’s Republican primary.
“Since 1994, I have been a Walter Jones supporter,” McLaughlin said in an announcement speech. “But it just cannot be that the congressman from the 3rd district, which probably has more troops in the fight than any other district in the country, would have more in common with Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democrats than with the Republican leadership.” His candidacy already has prominent supporters. “Disloyalty is something you just can’t tolerate,” Onslow County GOP Chairman Ronald Cherubini told The Politico. “That’s the way military people look at it. As a party, we have sent [Jones] a letter saying we cannot support you anymore…”
The Jones-McLaughlin contest is one of several races across the country that will test whether the Republican Party will tolerate dissent on the Iraq War. The handful of antiwar GOP legislators has always faced tremendous pressure within the party. Now they are increasingly facing primary challengers.
Congressman Wayne Gilchrest has represented Maryland’s first district for nine terms. Like Jones, the Vietnam combat veteran voted both to authorize the war and to end it. He opposed the surge and has backed timetables for pulling our troops out of Iraq. Gilchrest has defeated 23 primary opponents since 1990, but this time he is likely to face three-term state Sen. Andy Harris, who will be able to compete for the support of party regulars. Harris, a former commanding officer at the John Hopkins Naval Reserve Medical Unit, will challenge Gilchrest on the war.
“I’m not one who’s become part of the Washington fabric that led to our problems in 2006,” Harris told local reporters. “Returning to the viewpoint of Ronald Reagan—strength, not surrender, decreasing the size of government, decreasing taxes—that’s the true conservative base.”
And the conservative base still by and large supports the Iraq War. While Republican antiwar sentiment has grown, 59 percent of GOP voters told CBS News that they opposed a timetable for withdrawal. By contrast, 65 percent of independents and 83 percent of Democrats are in favor. This jarring disconnect explains why some Republicans are working to solidify the party’s pro-war stance even as the rest of the electorate is moving in the opposite direction.
The most spirited primary fights may involve the two most visible Republican critics of Bush’s Iraq policies, one of whom is rumored to be weighting a presidential run while the other is already in the race. Nebraska Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning has declared his intention to take on Sen. Chuck Hagel, while several candidates are said to be pondering a bid against Congressman Ron Paul—including former Paul staffer Eric Dondero.
A Hagel-Bruning race would not be a gentlemanly contest between two Midwesterners. In his announcement, Bruning said there was “no doubt that we’re at war with an enemy who will stop at nothing to defeat and kill us” and fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq is “the most important issue of our time.” That’s why, he continued, “Nebraskans want a leader who will stand with our troops and military commanders.”
Hagel’s staff hit back hard. “For Jon Bruning, who has never served his country in uniform, to question Chuck Hagel’s commitment to the troops is an insult to the troops and to the intelligence of the people of Nebraska,” the senator’s political director told reporters. “Mr. Bruning is in over his head.”
A race between Ron Paul and Eric Dondero might get just as heated. Dondero launched his campaign on the conservative RedState blog after Paul’s exchange with Rudy Giuliani in the South Carolina GOP presidential debate. Dondero called his former boss “a complete nutcase” whose foreign-policy views are “near treasonous.” Paul’s spokesman shot back that the would-be challenger was a disgruntled, fired ex-staffer who was “looney-tunes.”
“Ron Paul might face some frivolous challenges,” says libertarian Republican activist William Westmiller. “I’m not sure [Dondero] has the resources to take him on.” But if he doesn’t, Friendswood City Councilman Chris Peden might. Peden has already formed an exploratory committee.
Even milder GOP Iraq critics are under fire. Conservative radio talk-show host Todd Long has declared against Congressman Ric Keller in Florida. Keller voted for the war and merely supported a non-binding resolution against this year’s troop surge, though admittedly his speech on the subject—he compared the situation in Iraq to a poorly maintained lawn—was not Churchillian in its eloquence. Another anti-surge Republican, Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, has several state legislators pondering primary challenges.
If the ranks of antiwar Republicans have barely grown since public opinion began shifting, this ferocious response may be the reason. When the Democrats gave Jones and other antiwar GOP congressmen some of their allotted time to speak against the surge, The Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti warned about “Move-On Republicans” (in reference to the left-wing group), whose rhetoric is “indistinguishable from that of the antiwar Democrats.”
The 17 GOP congressmen who voted against the surge—or for a “defeatist resolution,” as the single-issue hawks prefer to put it—were swiftly denounced as “White Flag Republicans” by a group called the Victory Caucus. Although it doesn’t have the resources of the anti-tax Club for Growth or various social conservative organizations, outfits like the Victory Caucus hope to play a similar role in pushing incumbents to adopt the party’s majority viewpoint.
From their perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense. Putting Republican incumbents on notice that they may lose their seats if they vote for tax increases or against abortion restrictions has pulled the party to the right on both of those issues. Given that the GOP’s presidential field shows more flexibility on taxpayer funding of abortion than foreign policy, why not adopt similar tactics with regard to Iraq?
The Club for Growth became a formidable political force by accumulating a certain number of GOP incumbents’ scalps. To exert similar political pressure, especially while swing voters are trending antiwar, the Victory Caucus actually has to score some victories. Do any of the Republican Iraq skeptics seem particularly vulnerable?
Paradoxically, single-issue groups fare best when taking on candidates who are out of step with the party on multiple issues. Arlen Specter is a frequent target because he is to his party’s left on taxes, racial preferences, and tort reform as well as abortion. George Voinovich, on the other hand, may be soft on taxes but he is solidly pro-life. Similarly, conservative antiwar Republicans may be able to protect their right flank on other issues. Neither John Duncan of Tennessee nor Howard Coble of North Carolina, whose non-Iraq voting records would please most conservatives, has primary opponents.
The original six House Republicans who voted against the war were evenly divided between conservatives with noninterventionist sympathies and Rockefeller liberals. Although only Paul and Duncan remain, this ratio has basically held. Gilchrest is to the left of his Eastern Shore district, a Republican enclave in a Democratic state. He will have trouble on abortion and gay rights as well as Iraq. Hagel’s voting record is mostly conservative, but he has been making noises about leaving the Senate—and the GOP. His opponent has wisely made the incumbent’s support for amnesty a major campaign issue. Both Paul and Jones, however, are well to their declared challengers’ right.
More importantly, Republican politicians will eventually modify their positions if Iraq is a net vote loser. In the Senate, that may already be happening. Sam Brownback is pushing troop reductions. Five GOP senators, including party loyalist Lamar Alexander, have introduced a bill that would enact the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations. And if antiwar Republicans fare better at the ballot box than their hawkish brethren, that will also be noticed—though so far, as former Sen. Lincoln Chafee and ex-Congressman John Hostettler can attest, that hasn’t happened.
In the meantime, the hawks are looking for their own Ned Lamont. And Walter Jones is out to remind them: Ned Lamont lost.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.