A fight over earmarks isn't unusual in a Republican primary. Two GOP contests in Mississippi, however, are flipping the usual terms of the debate.
A pair of Republican candidates — Sen. Thad Cochran and former Democratic congressman-turned-GOP challenger Gene Taylor — are embracing the now-banned practice sometimes labeled pork-barrel spending, using it not only to bolster their own campaigns but to cudgel their foes.
If that seems strange, it should: The Republican Party has all but driven supporters of earmarks from its ranks, convinced that they're the hallmark of politicians who don't adhere to conservative principles.
But Cochran and Taylor are arguing that earmarks offer an essential supply of money to cash-strapped Mississippi — with each citing the devastation wrought on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina as a prime example. On the campaign trail and in ads, they're calling out their opponents' positions by name.
One such ad, produced by a super PAC backing the long-term incumbent Cochran, blasts his opponent, GOP state Sen. Chris McDaniel, for equivocating in an interview earlier this year over whether he would have supported a fiscal relief bill for the region after the 2005 hurricane.
"Chris McDaniel: We just can't count on him," a narrator intones, after audio of the state senator's interview plays.
The beginning of the spot touted Cochran's own efforts to support the legislation and bring money back to the state, setting up another clear contrast between the two candidates. (They also have a substantial age difference; Cochran is 76 and McDaniel is 41.)
Taylor, meanwhile, has been outspoken in his campaign against Rep. Steven Palazzo, criticizing the two-term Republican incumbent for opposing a relief bill in 2013 for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Like Cochran, Taylor touts his own efforts to work with the state's delegation to pass a relief bill after Hurricane Katrina.
"He basically stuck his finger in their eye," Taylor said during the opening event of his campaign rollout in late March, according to The Mississippi Press. "It's unbelievable that after all we've been through, after asking for Katrina aid himself, he would say no to Hurricane Sandy victims."
Cochran and Taylor come from very different backgrounds: The six-term senator and master appropriator has been a pillar of the Republican Party in Mississippi since the 1970s, while Taylor last held office as a Democrat until Palazzo beat him during the 2010 Republican wave. He officially switched parties only this year.
But both represent the old-guard political establishment, a throwback to a time when delivering pork-barrel spending to constituents was viewed not only as a positive but as a necessary function of the job. The calculation is that even as Republican politics has become less tolerant of ideological deviations in recent years, Mississippi conservatives will still look fondly enough back on how things used to be done that they'll send both men back to Washington.
To be sure, their opponents welcome the fight. They're confident that voters will ultimately process the election not as a choice between the good old days of the past and an uncertain future, but as a decision between authentic conservatives and moderate squishes.
"What we've proven, time and time again, is that once voters realize that senators like Thad Cochran traded funding for things like a lobster institute in Maine or a "˜bridge to nowhere' in Alaska in exchange for parochial projects back home, they quickly begin to blame both the earmarks and the people who voted for them for our $17 trillion in debt," said Barney Keller, spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth.
Conservative groups have lined up behind McDaniel's quest to unseat Cochran, making him arguably the single biggest target within the GOP establishment this year. They've sought to make Cochran part of the past, a symbol of a dysfunctional political system that has failed the country.
That's where Cochran's continued support of earmarks could return to haunt him — not because of the anger it elicits among voters, but because it could associate him with a past many conservatives don't regard kindly.
"Thad Cochran doesn't have a primary fight purely because of earmarks. He's vulnerable because over five decades in Washington he's become part of the problem and the reason we have $17 trillion in debt," Keller said. "Earmarks are part of the story, but those, combined with his support for bailouts, tax hikes, and his support for Obama's debt-limit increases, tell the tale of a senator far too liberal for a conservative state like Mississippi."
Any suggestion the Mississippi duo signals a new embrace of earmarks among Republicans seems doubtful. In most Republican primaries across the country, candidates would sooner discuss repealing the 16th Amendment or abolishing the Department of Education than bringing back earmarks.
But in Mississippi — for now — they're making a comeback. It's up to voters to decide whether the practice should be revived.