Longtime Republican Rep. Walter Jones, a self-proclaimed ‘thorn in people’s asses,’ dies at age 76

Jones spent most of his first decade in Congress as a reliable Republican vote who didn’t draw much attention. However, he first made national news in 2003 when he was one of two Republican congressmen who, angry at France’s opposition to the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq, directed House cafeterias to redub french fries “freedom fries” and french toast “freedom toast.”

But within a few years, Jones came to regret his shenanigans and emerged as one of the few Republicans in Congress to oppose the Iraq War. The congressman first realized he had made a mistake in voting to take the country to war after he attended the funeral of a local Marine killed in Iraq during the first month of the conflict. He soon began sending letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan in what he called his “mea culpa to my Lord.” By December of 2017, he had sent over 12,000 of these messages.

Jones attracted a primary challenge in 2008 over his opposition to the Iraq War, but he took 59 percent of the vote and got to rest easy for a few years. However, he never stopped being a maverick. He notably was one of the few Republicans who voted for the Dodd-Frank banking reform law, and he voted against John Boehner for speaker of the House in both 2013 and 2015.

Some establishment-oriented Republicans tried to take Jones out in the 2014 primary by spending heavily on former George W. Bush aide Taylor Griffin. Jones survived, but by just a 51-45 spread. The close shave didn’t change his behavior, though, and Griffin sought a rematch two years later. However, fewer primary voters were in the mood to punish Jones this time, and he won with 65 percent of the vote.

Jones continued to test how much he could vote against his party’s leadership during the first two years of the Trump administration. He notably voted against the House version of Trumpcare and the GOP leadership’s tax bill, and he was the only Republican in the chamber to vote against repealing major parts of the Dodd-Frank Act.

In 2018, Jones again earned a primary challenge from a pair of opponents, Craven County Commissioner Scott Dacey and retired Marine Phil Law. The two may have split the anti-incumbent vote, though, and allowed Jones to escape one last time, as the congressman beat Law 43-29, with Dacey taking 28. While Jones won, the race demonstrated that a majority of the GOP electorate was ready for change, and during this battle, he said that he would not seek re-election in 2020.

However, Jones never got to go to D.C. for his final term. Jones missed every vote in the House from November until the end of his life because of an undisclosed illness, and he was sworn in to his final term in the House back home in North Carolina because he was too ill to make it to Washington. In the final week of January, Jones’ team announced that the congressman’s health had declined after he broke his hip on Jan. 14, and he was checked into hospice. Jones died Sunday after about two weeks in hospice care.

Jones’ district, which includes the Outer Banks along the North Carolina coast, has long been safely red, and Jones’ successor is all but certain to be a fellow Republican. This seat will be filled in a special election on a date that has yet to be announced.

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