A larger than life country character in real life and as Cooter on the 1980s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, former Georgia congressman Ben Jones was basking in reflected glory when I reached him Wednesday at his hideaway in rural Little Washington, Virginia. “My new quote, I just wrote it on the wall,” he exulted. “There’s no freude like schadenfreude.”
He was referring to what’s been dubbed “the Cooter factor,” an open letter the Democrat wrote encouraging voters of all political stripes to participate in Tuesday’s open primary in Virginia and vote against Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Jones portrayed it as a way to “make a statement about the dysfunctional Congress and ‘politics as usual.’” The letter went viral, and GOP pollster John McLaughlin said a surge of new voters who were not Republicans was partly to blame for Cantor’s surprise defeat.
Only too happy to claim bragging rights, Jones reminded me that he is responsible for the downfall not only of the current majority leader but of former speaker Newt Gingrich. He ran against Gingrich in 1994, and though he lost the race by a wide margin, the ethics charges he brought against Gingrich eventually brought him down. In 2002, Jones ran against Cantor, another losing effort. “Both of them whipped my ass, they beat me like a rented mule, and here I am feeling great, and they are all hangdog today,” he said.
Between his political forays, Jones built a successful career as an actor, singer, and entrepreneur with Cooter’s museum and stores in Tennessee and Virginia. Democrats came to him in 2002; they needed someone to run against Cantor, and he reluctantly agreed, knowing it was a long shot and that he would be outspent. The race left him with an intense dislike of Cantor. “He ducked debates, slandered me in slick mailings, questioned my patriotism and even mocked my Southern heritage,” Jones wrote in his open letter. “He simply cannot be taken at his word. You can call that ‘sour grapes’ if you want to, but I am just telling it the way it was, and surely is.” He endorsed Cantor’s opponent, college professor David Brat, calling him “an old-school conservative.”
Jones may come across to some as a cartoon character from a South that barely exists anymore, but his understanding of politics is in touch and very modern. “This is an extraordinary event that goes beyond just knocking off a majority leader,” he said of Cantor’s defeat, ticking off all the elements of power that had no idea what was lurking in the hearts and minds of voters in Virginia’s 7th District. From Cantor and the Republican Party to the K Street lobbyists and all the talking head politicians and pundits, “Everybody gave Dave Brat zero chance until last night,” Jones said.
“With Cantor, I got my butt kicked, it didn’t make any sense to run, nothing positive came out of it until now. Now I got him.”
Cantor raised more than $5 million in a primary he was supposed to win easily. He ran the same kind of campaign against Brat that he ran a dozen years earlier against Jones, relying on negative ads and mail. “He ran against this nice economics professor as if he was me,” Jones said. “He ran the same kind of campaign he always runs, and he pissed off a lot of Republicans.”
“These were not right-wing gun nuts dressed in American flag suits screaming about Obama being a communist,” he said. “These were really good, solid traditional conservatives,” and they didn’t hear a lot of straight talk from Cantor, while Brat came across as a refreshing alternative. Jones is aware of the flap Wednesday over Brat apparently not having a position on whether the federal minimum wage should be raised or whether there should even be a mandated minimum wage. “He can’t be any worse on that issue than Eric Cantor,” Jones said, adding, “The first time he votes, Democrats are going to be mad at me.”
For now, though, Jones is feeling pretty good. “I’m popular with the Tea Party, the left really loves me, and everybody else in between. I just wrote a letter and said what I thought. His race against me was dishonorable. Ducking debates is not honorable.” He initially sent that letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Editors there told him it was too long, that he had to cut it down. He did, submitting a shorter version, which they did not run. He notes that Cantor’s wife is on the board of the newspaper. That’s when he submitted the letter to the Huffington Post.
Looking back on his life, much of which he readily says was misspent, one thing he couldn’t figure out was “Why in the hell I ran against Cantor,” he said. “What was the purpose? With Gingrich, it was ethics, I had the goods. With Cantor, I got my butt kicked, it didn’t make any sense to run, nothing positive came out of it until now. Now I got him.”
The satisfaction is sweet, even a dozen years delayed, but Jones is not a man who takes himself and others all that seriously. He remembers when he ran against Gingrich and people said, “Aren’t you tilting at windmills?” His response: “No, I’m tilting at windbags.” He only served two terms in Congress, and says, “My greatest asset in politics was to be able to come up with lines like that.”
Still, even if he used his wits as an entertainer as much as anything, he helped bring about the downfall of two of the GOP’s most prominent politicians.