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, Senator 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. Representative 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 Governor 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 Governor 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 Senator 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.