Ask Republican voters if they support federal funds to pay for hurricane recovery and infrastructure improvement, and many would say they do. Ask them if they support earmarks, and the response would be resoundingly negative. Over the next few months, the battle to define appropriations will be in full swing in three crucial GOP Senate primaries—Georgia, Kentucky, and Mississippi—and the results will go a long way toward defining the future ideological direction of the party.
What's striking is that after spending years on the defensive over earmarks, the establishment is beginning to fight back by changing the terms of the debate. Facing the toughest election in his career, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is airing ads highlighting his role delivering federal aid to the state's Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while avoiding the subject during the primary, is expected to tout his work securing funds for disadvantaged parts of Kentucky as a major theme in a tight general election. Rep. Jack Kingston is gaining momentum in the crowded Georgia primary, despite his background as a House appropriator. He recently defended his role in crafting budgets with earmarks as getting "a little mud on your face" as part of the process.
Any veiled support of pork is a risky proposition in a Republican primary—just ask Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst, who touted her experience castrating hogs as proof she can cut wasteful spending in Washington. But with Democrats challenging in all three races, proving value to your constituents is still a tried-and-true formula for a general election. Indeed, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used House Republican opposition to the level of funding for Hurricane Sandy relief as a rallying cry for his reelection campaign.
In a sign the tide has shifted, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour offered an unapologetic defense of Cochran's influence bringing home federal funds in a column that ran last week in the Sun Herald. In it, he touted Cochran being in position to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee if Republicans retake the Senate, and highlighted his vote to reopen the government after the shutdown last October. It's not surprising to see Barbour, one of Washington's most imposing power brokers, defend the importance of influence and seniority. But it was unusual for him to do it so publicly—taking the tea party on and directing his message to a conservative Gulf Coast audience who has benefited from the federal-recovery largesse.
"Haley's got some balls," said his nephew, Henry Barbour, who is running the pro-Cochran Mississippi Conservatives super PAC. "When a state gets hit by the worst natural disaster in the history of the country, most people understand federal government has a proper role there."
The Mississippi Senate primary, taking place on June 3, is the most consequential test of where the Republican Party stands on the role of federal spending. Even Cochran insiders regard the six-term senator as being in serious trouble, polling around 50 percent with softer support than his tea-party-backed rival, state Sen. Chris McDaniel. But his campaign's willingness to embrace the argument that influence and seniority still matters—one that Republicans have shied away from lately—could embolden Republicans to tout their clout, especially after primary season is over.
"The political environment favors McDaniel, and sometimes it's hard to overcome the political environment, one that's sick of Washington," one Cochran ally said. "But as Trent Lott once said, 'Pork is federal spending north of Memphis.' "
All three upcoming races featuring appropriators in tough Senate races—Cochran, Kingston, and McConnell—also share another characteristic. Democrats are aggressively contesting all three seats on Republican turf, and their recruits don't have to be ambivalent about federal spending. Until the GOP landslide of 1994, Democrats retained a congressional stronghold in the South even as the national party drifted left, thanks to their veteran members' ability to deliver money to their home districts. While the partisan makeup has dramatically changed since then, voters still appreciate the politicians with a record of providing to their constituents.
"Our message is better in a primary than in a general election," conceded one conservative strategist.
McConnell's campaign is a clear-cut example of the delicate balance Republicans face on this front. Scott Jennings, who is running McConnell's super PAC, recalled how the senator's 2008 campaign ran targeted TV ads in each of the state's media markets "as a recitation of the earmarks we'd gotten in different parts of the state." Now, with primary challenger Matt Bevin hitting him on wasteful spending, he's avoided the subject. "You have to be more careful what you say these days," Jennings said.
But if McConnell wins the nomination, he's expected to talk more about his record delivering for the state. McConnell's soft spot in his last election was in eastern Kentucky, where he lost numerous coal-producing counties by double-digits, even as Mitt Romney won the surrounding district with 75 percent of the vote in 2012. McConnell's campaign has been aggressively tying Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes to President Obama's energy policies, but he'll also need to shore up his own support in coal country. One McConnell strategist lamented that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., gets all the credit for money earmarked to the impoverished district, overshadowing McConnell's role.
In addition, McConnell strategists are concerned about his standing in the counties surrounding Fort Knox, where he touted his work fending off cuts in the last campaign—cuts that later became reality, with its combat brigade stripped and thousands of tank personnel eliminated.
"How many Democrats voted for McConnell in the past because they understood the need for pork, understood his ability to get the government to deliver? Now there's concern there will be a dropoff," the McConnell strategist said.
As the establishment legislators become more comfortable asserting their prerogatives, they face a critical verdict from their core voters in these upcoming contests. At stake: Whether we'll see members of Congress running on their experience and clout again.
"Republican primary voters, by and large, aren't interested in rewarding federal officeholders who are good at spending tax dollars," said Barney Keller, spokesman for the Club for Growth, the leading outside group enforcing the fiscally conservative line. "They're interested in rewarding officeholders who are good at cutting spending and limiting the size and scope of government."