The Crystal Coast Republican Men’s Club faithful were all smiles as they gathered at a restaurant to listen to their candidate for North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District.
But the warm reception wasn’t for the Republican who since 1995 has represented this stretch of coast from the Virginia state line to the sprawling Marine base at Camp Lejeune. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., a soft-spoken, deeply religious man who two years ago turned against the Iraq war, was not there.
The GOP activists dining on fried fish were cheering Joe McLaughlin, a county commissioner and retired Army major who has launched a hard-charging bid to dispatch Jones in next year’s primary by highlighting Jones’ votes against the war.
“His is a message of despair, a message of defeat,” McLaughlin told the appreciative crowd as he derided Jones, accusing him of abandoning the troops, President Bush, even talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
Jones, who has never had a primary challenge but is being abandoned by GOP officials across his district, is not alone.
Across the country, other Republican lawmakers who have broken with over the war are under fire from party loyalists.
The revolt could cost Jones and a handful of other members of Congress their seats next year. It also helps explain why the stalled Democratic legislative campaign to end the war is unlikely to revive any time soon.
Despite months of pressure, no more than eight Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have backed any measure that mandates a troop withdrawal. And GOP strategists predict that is unlikely to change.
“Republicans have to be cognizant of where their base is,” said pollster Bob Wickers, whose company has worked with Republican candidates in a dozen states in recent years.
While most Americans want U.S. troops out of Iraq, Republicans remain solidly behind the president and the war. A recent CBS News survey found 58% of Republicans approve of the way Bush is handling the war, compared with just 5% of Democrats and 20% of independents.
GOP politicians have defied that sentiment at their peril.
In Maryland, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest -- who like Jones has backed Democratic proposals to set a timeline for withdrawing troops -- faces a well-funded Republican challenger. So too may congressmen in Florida and South Carolina who opposed the president’s increase of troop levels.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska faced a primary challenge from the state’s attorney general, who got into the race as Hagel escalated his criticism of the president’s conduct of the war. Hagel announced last month that he won’t run for reelection next year.
Not long ago, many political strategists believed public opinion would push Republicans to join the legislative campaign to end the war, rather than resist it.
When the war debate intensified this year with the president’s January announcement that he would send 28,500 additional troops to Iraq, many Americans were skeptical of the Bush strategy; surveys showed that more than two-thirds opposed the plan.
And in February, more than two dozen Republicans in the House and Senate crossed the aisle to support nonbinding resolutions opposing the president’s “surge” plan.
Yet, even as public support for a congressionally mandated withdrawal grew -- by March, most Americans wanted a withdrawal deadline -- Republican support never materialized on Capitol Hill.
In July, only four voted for a withdrawal bill in the House and just four backed a similar measure in the Senate. By September, nearly united GOP opposition had all but assured that there would be no more legislation this year aimed at forcing the president to change strategy in Iraq.
The resistance of Republican lawmakers stunned many political observers. But it largely reflected the opposition of rank-and-file Republicans, particularly the most conservative who vote in party primaries.
In Nebraska earlier this year, pollster Wickers found that Atty. Gen. Jon Bruning’s lead over Hagel among Republican primary voters jumped from 9 to 24 points when respondents were told of Hagel’s criticism of the president and his support for Democratic-sponsored withdrawal legislation.
Nationally, roughly two-thirds of Republicans oppose forcing the president to follow a timetable to withdraw troops, according to Tony Fabrizio, a longtime GOP pollster who has worked on numerous House and Senate campaigns. “Republicans don’t have much to gain by changing positions,” Fabrizio said.
Some who have done so are paying a price.
In Florida, Rep. Ric Keller was labeled a “white flag Republican” by talk-show host Hugh Hewitt after he voted in February for the nonbinding resolution opposing the president’s troop surge. Keller potentially faces two primary challengers, even though he has opposed every Democratic withdrawal plan.
There is talk of a possible primary challenge to South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis. He also voted for the nonbinding resolution in February but has remained loyal to the party line since.
Gilchrest, a Vietnam War veteran who has represented Maryland’s conservative 1st Congressional District since 1990 and strongly opposes the war, is trying to fend off a challenge from a state senator who has targeted Gilchrest’s war votes and won the backing of numerous GOP officials, including former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.
All year, Gilchrest has unabashedly voted for Democratic legislation that would mandate a troop pullout. “Some may fear there is a political price to be paid,” Gilchrest said in an interview outside the House chamber. “Some may think they have to follow the commander in chief and Congress has no real responsibility in making military decisions or foreign policy decisions. I completely disagree with that.”
In North Carolina, Jones is equally unapologetic.
Shaking hands and posing for photos with Boy Scouts at the annual Scuppernong River festival in tiny Columbia, N.C., the congressman dismissed the notion that Republican voters might drive him from office in the party primary next May.
“The Kool-Aid drinkers, those who don’t know the truth, who only hear the half-truths and the opinions of a Rush Limbaugh, they believe it. But I know too many” voters, Jones said. “When my days end in Congress, I would rather be able to say I did what was right for America, rather than my party did this, my party did that.”
On a Main Street that runs past a historic brick courthouse and Confederate war memorial and dead-ends in the swamp forests that cover this isolated region, Jones has his defenders.
Durwood Cooper Jr., a real estate broker whose family has farmed in Tyrell County for generations, said he would back Jones next year, even though he disagreed with the congressman on the war.
“I’m open to his viewpoint, as I would hope he’s open to mine,” Cooper said, noting that Jones’ loyalty to his district counts for more than his votes against the war. “Some people get elected and it becomes a job. With Walter, it’s a service.”
But service has a distinct meaning in a congressional district that is home to more than 50,000 active-duty Marines and traces its martial history back centuries.
At the Old Burying Ground in the nearby historic port of Beaufort, the story is told of a British sailor who died at sea in the 18th century and was buried standing up in full uniform because he wanted to face the king of England.
And today, money is being raised for a Vietnam War memorial to be built outside Camp Lejeune, next to a wall that commemorates the 241 servicemen killed when the Marine barracks in Beirut were blown up in 1983.
Jones, who served in the National Guard as a young man, has tried to honor the sacrifices of those killed in Iraq by writing letters to the families of every dead service member, a ritual that has taken on a penitential quality for him.
But his decision to openly repudiate the Iraq war, in part by joining forces with liberal lawmakers such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), has not gone over well with voters for whom opposition to the war amounts to a betrayal of the troops.
And it is helping McLaughlin, who has emblazoned his campaign signs with “Support the Troops” to rally veterans, elected officials and business leaders from across the district to his side.
Peter Grimes, a retired Marine colonel with a son who is being deployed to Iraq, is one of those who will support McLaughlin next year.
“You get elected to represent the constituency that put you there,” said Grimes, standing by the Beirut memorial as a warm, fall breeze blew leaves off the trees. “Walter has lost touch with our community.”