McConnell, left, has long been a target of anti-establishment conservatives, and the tea party’s latest offensive criticizes the Kentucky Republican’s failure to secure funding for a deteriorating bridge over the Ohio River.
“Leader McConnell is up in Washington, and he is fighting his hardest,” Benton said, adding that “he’s not going to pander on his votes.”
Ron Bonjean, a former top aide to Republican leaders in both the House and Senate, suggested that bringing up the bridge could show the desperation of some McConnell opponents on his right.
“If their only complaint is that ... they’re complaining about pork, then they’re not really a part of the conservative movement or the tea party,” Bonjean said. “It seems like they’re just trying to find a reason not to like him.”
Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi — like McConnell a senior appropriator and prolific earmarker of that bygone era — explained the fine line GOP members have to walk when it comes to bringing home federal dollars. “Part of the challenge of the job is sorting through all the different views that are reflected in the population of your state,” Cochran said. “So it’s not unusual to have two people from the state disagreeing on whether you need a new bridge or need a new highway or none of the above.”
The Brent Spence Bridge replacement project specifically remains mired in a funding stalemate, with federal money in short supply and stakeholders continuing to disagree about the efficacy of tolls. Still, Ohio GOP Gov. John R. Kasich and Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steven L. Beshear have agreed on the need to use tolls to pay for the cost of a new span and other upgrades, but the Northern Kentucky Tea Party has publicly opposed tolling.
The cost of replacing the bridge — $2.5 billion — exceeds the entire annual anticipated federal road and bridge funding for Ohio and Kentucky combined.
All told, the highway reauthorization that became law last year will give the two states $3.8 billion for fiscal years 2013 and 2014. But the bill was written without earmarks, so it will have to compete with projects from other states for scant remaining federal funds.
Nathan Hurst and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.