The Republican War Over Earmarks

In several upcoming primaries, Republican officeholders are increasingly willing to brag about bringing home the bacon.

National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
March 31, 2014, 5:40 p.m.

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.”

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