Months after the Republican announced his 2018 campaign would be his last, Jones' health faded. He died in February at age 76.
Jones' death drew people from both sides of the aisle to praise his commitment to his constituents, his faith and his willingness to buck party leadership regardless of political consequences, such as when he opposed the Iraq War.
It also drew more than two dozen candidates from four parties into an accelerated, off-year special election to replace him in the GOP-leaning 3rd Congressional District.
"No one will fill his shoes. He was an honorable honest, good Christian man," said Gary Weaver, the Republican Party chairman in Pitt County, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Raleigh. "He didn't get persuaded by money. He didn't get persuaded by influence. He voted his conscience."
Twenty-six candidates filed last month to run in a 3rd District race that's unfolding a year earlier than had been expected. All but one are listed on ballots for primaries scheduled April 30. With 17 Republican and six Democratic candidates, one or two runoffs could be required in July before a September general election. To win a nomination outright, the leading candidate must get more than 30 percent of the votes. Otherwise, a party's top two vote-getters advance to a runoff.
It's one of two unusual North Carolina congressional races this year. The 9th District is having a do-over primary in May and general election as early as September, after last year's race was marred by allegations of absentee ballot tampering.
The mostly rural 3rd District covers all or parts of 17 counties from the Virginia border and the Outer Banks to the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune and the medical hub of Greenville. A hurried campaign there means candidates are rushing to woo voters with catchy phrases and commercials.
Entering the final week of early in-person voting, roughly 2 percent of eligible voters in the three primary elections had cast ballots.
"This is a political food fight," said Scott Dacey, who challenged Jones unsuccessfully in the three-candidate 2018 GOP primary. He's not running this year. "In this environment, you just have to hope that something's going to stick, that some of your message is going to prevail."
The GOP's field includes state Reps. Greg Murphy, Michael Speciale and Phil Shepard, as well as elected county leaders, physicians and military retirees.
At the campaign's start, ex-Marine Phil Law, who lost to Jones in the 2016 and 2018 primaries, likely had the most name recognition in the Republican race. Party activists will also recognize Michele Nix, the recent vice chairwoman of the state GOP.
Murphy, a Greenville urologist, topped the list of Republican candidate fundraisers in pre-primary campaign filings. Murphy, Kinston pediatrician Joan Perry, and consultant Jeff Moore of Raleigh were among those running TV ads to reinforce their conservative credentials and support for President Donald Trump. He won the district in 2016 by 24 percentage points.
Lenoir County Commissioner Eric Rouse appears in a commercial firing at trap targets labeled as "Anti Gun," ''Govt Healthcare" and "Green New Deal."
"Trump needs allies to help shoot down these socialist, radical" agendas, says Rouse, holding a shotgun, asking voters to pick him "because in the House, I'll have Trump's back."
In another campaign ad, Nix throws some distinctly Southern shade on New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Corte
"She has the media, she has the followers, but bless her heart, she has some terrible ideas," Nix says. A dark horse GOP candidate may be Celeste Cairns, who drew the endorsement of the influential Club for Growth PAC.
The Democratic field includes former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas; current New Bern Mayor Dana Outlaw; 2016 U.S. Senate candidate Ernest Reeves; and Richard "Otter" Bew, a retired Marine colonel who served as a legislative aide to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thomas and Bew were Democratic fundraising leaders approaching the primary.
The Democratic hopefuls have praised Jones at candidate forums, saying they would aim to match his well-known constituent services if elected, according to Chris Hardee, the Democratic Party's 3rd District chairman. Their attitude reflects the long history of Jones, who held the seat for 24 years, and of his father, Walter Jones Sr. The elder Jones, a Democrat, represented the region for 26 years until his 1992 death.
While Trump has strong 3rd District support, Hardee says it's a moderate district where citizens want someone who'll fight for region's military bases and agricultural economy.
The special election raises the wild-card possibility that with the right general-election matchup or narrative a Democrat could pull an upset.
"This is our best chance - and maybe our only chance for a while, if we don't win," Hardee said.
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