Republicans can’t seem to reach an official party line this election year on the old Washington custom of using the federal budget to benefit the folks back home.
The disagreement is a byproduct of divisions between conservative and establishment Republicans, and is on display in three races that will help determine whether the GOP wins control of the U.S. Senate for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
It’s forcing veteran appropriators and their opponents in Mississippi, Georgia and Kentucky to navigate between conservatives’ distaste for tax-and-spend government and voters’ fondness for public projects and programs.
All three states lean Republican, but Democrats hope that knockdown Republican primaries give them an opening in November. Democratic victories in any of the states would frustrate Republicans’ hope of gaining the six seats they need to reclaim the Senate majority.
“There’s all this pressure on Republicans on spending, most of it self-generated,” said GOP strategist Todd Rehm of Georgia. “It creates a bind between wanting to campaign as a fiscal conservative while still meeting people’s expectations for economic development help.”
Challengers and upstarts such as Mississippi’s Chris McDaniel want to make anyone who’s held the federal purse strings answers for a $17 trillion national debt. They attack everything from “pork” spending and the 2008 bank rescue to last fall’s debt-limit increase and Republicans’ inability to derail Obama’s health care overhaul.
McDaniel’s primary battle against Sen. Thad Cochran, a former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, is the tea party’s best and perhaps only chance for a Senate victory this year.
Cochran, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia defend their credentials as fiscally austere conservatives, while arguing that their experience and influence is an advantage for their states.