As the 2018 midterm election cycle ramps up, Republican operatives are busy strategizing about how to protect incumbent GOP lawmakers. In one case, though, Republicans are working to overthrow one of its incumbents: Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina.
Jones, who is in his 11th term in office, cuts an unlikely figure in Washington, D.C. He has fought for a higher minimum wage, tougher regulations on Wall Street, and stronger limits on big money in politics. He has called for restrictions on government surveillance, sharply criticized the leadership of his party for being too cozy with K Street lobbyists and corporate interests, and waged a one-man battle to rein in United States-backed wars raging throughout the Middle East. Though once a strong supporter of the Iraq War, Jones changed his tune as the disastrous war unfolded: “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney,” he once quipped.
These sorts of strident positions have put him at odds with Republican-aligned special interest groups and the GOP establishment over the years, with party leadership at one point revoking a plum committee assignment, and also dispatching a parade of Washington insiders to undermine him in his Republican primary. Jones has beaten back every attempt in the past, but faces a spirited challenge again this year.
Scott Dacey, a casino and tax lobbyist who also serves on the Craven County Board of Commissioners, will be Jones’s opponent in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District Republican primary on May 8. Dacey divides his time between Washington, D.C., and North Carolina. According to a recently filed ethics form, he manages a Washington lobbying firm, from which he collected $509,899 last year in salary and profit-sharing, and co-owns a lucrative investment property on Capitol Hill.
In the past, interest groups aired foreign policy-focused ads alleging that Jones undercut the U.S. alliance with Israel and had been too friendly to Iran. This time, Dacey is hoping to cast Jones as disloyal to President Donald Trump by making Jones’s vote against Trump’s tax reform bill a highlight of the campaign.
“Jones voted with Pelosi against your tax cut,” blares Dacey’s first televised campaign ad.
“Jones voted with Pelosi against your tax cut,” blares Dacey’s first televised campaign advertisement, flashing images of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a Californian and Democratic House leader, four times in 30 seconds. The latest Dacey ad attempts to manufacture a strong connection between Jones and liberal billionaire George Soros.
Jones has said he opposed the tax bill for a long list of reasons, explaining that it would increase the deficit, remove tax deductions that are used for employing veterans and helping hurricane victims, and force middle-class Americans to end up paying more in taxes.
For Dacey, however, the law is more than just a political football. Disclosures show that Dacey’s lobbying firm helped two wine industry groups push for a special carve-out that was successfully inserted into the tax reform bill. The special provision is estimated to provide the wine, beer, and spirits industry with around $4.2 billion in savings over the next 10 years. Dacey’s lobbying firm, Pace LLC, also disclosed its work on tax reform for several other clients, including a trade group for credit reporting agencies and a facility management group, but did not list the specific provisions they worked on.
Dacey specializes in lobbying on behalf of Native tribes. He represents nine different Native American clients, focusing on issues related to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which regulates gambling establishments on Native lands.
“Professionally, I have worked in Washington, D.C., and throughout Indian Country to assist Native American tribal governments in protecting their lands, their property rights, and the rights of their members from the ongoing intrusion of the federal government into their local affairs,” Dacey told a local paper, expounding on his lobbying work.
Those Native gambling interests, which have long patronized Dacey’s lobbying business, are among his biggest donors. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which owns the Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula, California; the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut; Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, which owns two casinos in Arizona; and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which owns the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa in Riverside, California, have each donated the maximum $2,700 to Dacey’s campaign. Another tribally backed political action committee, the Fund for American Exceptionalism, donated to Dacey as well.
Dacey’s friendly ties to the GOP establishment, including a long history of donating to lawmakers, is in turn helping to fuel his run against Jones. Federal Election Commission filings show that PACs associated with senior Republican lawmakers and lobbyists are financing his campaign. The leadership PACs of Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; Paul Cook, R-Calif.; and Jeff Denham, R-Calif., donated to Dacey’s campaign. So have PACs associated with the utility industry, delivery giant United Parcel Service, and California Nations Indian Gaming Association.
Dark money groups are also weighing in for Dacey. A group called Americans United for Values, which does not disclose its donors, recently began paying for direct mail in the district to oppose Jones.
Nonetheless, Dacey has brushed off criticism that he’s a creature of the Washington swamp. “I’ll be the very best lobbyist Donald Trump could possibly have serving in Congress to advance his agenda,” the candidate told the News & Observer, a North Carolina newspaper.
The special interest money, though, is nothing new for the 3rd Congressional District of North Carolina, which stretches across the eastern coast of the state.
For two consecutive cycles in 2012 and 2014, a Republican operative named Taylor Griffin challenged Jones using a similar playbook. Griffin, who previously worked at a public relations firm for the banking industry, claimed Jones was too liberal and too friendly with Democrats. Super PACs, Wall Street PACs, GOP leadership PACs, and undisclosed dark money from outside organizations, including pro-Israel groups, poured over $1 million into race to unseat Jones. As one of the only GOP lawmakers to vote for the post-financial crisis regulations on the banking sector, observers noted that the influx of financial industry cash appeared to be retribution by the industry over his maverick voting record.
In both races, though, Jones — who has deep roots in the district, having taken over his father’s congressional seat — emerged victorious.
This time could be different. Jones is one of the last remaining populists in the GOP, and his repeated votes against the Trump agenda, especially on tax cuts, could provoke a backlash. In 2016, North Carolina’s 3rd District went for Trump by 20 points. In any case, Jones announced recently that this election campaign will be his last. Even if he survives this latest primary challenge, he intends to retire after the following cycle.