Candidates in the Georgia Republican Senate primary are jostling for the furthest right starting block in what’s likely to be a crowded race. Already the question is: Can a member of the Appropriations Committee, through which all past spending decisions have traveled, prevail in the new GOP era of fiscal restraint?
Rep. Jack Kingston is the case in point. He’s the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, and he’s expected to enter the Senate primary against Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey. Rep. Tom Price is touted as a potential candidate as well.
The differences among the lawmakers are subtle, so Kingston could be vulnerable to attack from his right flank in a primary that may hinge on who is more fiscally conservative. It’s becoming apparent that the knives will be out should the 1st District representative announce his candidacy. Broun said that what distinguishes him from the field is his fealty to constitutionally limited government.
“I think Americans want somebody who is going to reduce the spending,” Broun said in an interview. “So anyone who has voted for bigger government, bigger spending, is going to have troubles in a primary race if they’re running against someone who has the record that I have.”
The Appropriations Committee has fallen in stature in the years since Republican leaders banned earmarks, the pet projects that members sought for their districts. Now the panel is focused more on cutting spending than on increasing it. And appropriators have become a reluctant bulwark against some of their more aggressive GOP colleagues’ efforts to cut discretionary spending.
Before the mood of the institution turned on the tea party dime, before earmarks became anathema, longtime appropriators had the motive and opportunity to build up a record of earmarks.
Though he is known for his early commitment to reducing earmarks, Kingston was no exception. He amassed nearly $50 million in solo earmark requests from 2008 to 2010, according to records kept by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Appropriators also are known for accepting compromise spending bills in committee solidarity with their Democratic counterparts. Now compromise has become a dirty word among many conservatives.
Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, conceded that the appropriator moniker could be damaging. “The longer you’re here, the more votes you have, the more of your record you have to be able to defend. So it can be a factor, sure,” Walden said, noting that the party committee will not get involved in the Georgia primary. “You vote for the appropriations vote because you’re an appropriator. So it might add to it. But they’ve also been doing that in their districts for a long time.”
Running in a district and running statewide is a major distinction, however, and it’s clear that Kingston is crafting a defense to inoculate himself from just those kind of attacks. He said the Appropriations Committee has been the only panel to actually cut spending. And he noted that amendments from other members, such as Broun, may sound good on paper but do not become law.
“The difference in what an appropriator does and what somebody from the outside does is they may have an appearance of voting purity because a lot of what we do is not scored by outside rating groups,” Kingston said. “But the reality is a lot of what they’re doing is symbolic and doesn’t even pass the House floor.”
GOP Rep. Tom Latham, an Appropriations cardinal who briefly flirted with a Senate run in Iowa before demurring to what seemed like an inevitable run from Rep. Steve King, echoed Kingston’s defense. “As an appropriator we’re cutting spending, so that’s the most important thing,” he said.
Broun also brings up amendments that do not pass muster with most of his colleagues, though they often serve as bellwethers on the voting scorecards of conservative advocacy groups.
In the 112th Congress, Broun had the highest rating of any Georgia candidate with Heritage Action for America, a conservative grass-roots activist group, which gave him a 96 percent score. Kingston scored lowest, at 71 percent.
Ultimately, George primary voters will judge whose argument has more credence. Joel McElhannon, a Peach State political consultant who is not affiliated with any candidate, said Kingston is at a natural disadvantage, but money, advertising and outside group involvement will decide whether the attacks stick.
“Is spending and debt and the overall economy going to be the overwhelming issue in this race? Yes,” McElhannon said. “So Jack has something to overcome there. ... This issue of being an appropriator, of your track record of spending in your time in Congress ... that’s really going to come into focus in this race.”
There is evidence that Kingston may have some backup, though. Outside groups have pledged to counter attacks by candidates they perceive as too conservative to win a general election, as was the case last year with the disastrous Senate bids of ex-Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri and state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in Indiana.
The Republican Main Street Partnership works to elect center-right candidates to the House. Its president, former Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio, said he can envision GOP strategist Karl Rove getting involved as well with his political action committee, American Crossroads.
“To attack an appropriator for spending too much money is kind of on the ridiculous side,” said LaTourette, a former appropriator. “In my opinion, it’d be a cheap shot and the way you push back against that is to take them to task.”
That’s also Rep. Tom Cole’s advice. The Oklahoma Republican appropriator, a former NRCC chairman, has often pushed back against those who criticize his panel members on fiscal issues.
“People can always distort you, but most earmarks, at least 95 percent of them, are defensible,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to counterattack. If they’ve got something to say about you, you’ve got something to say about them.
“I don’t think appropriators live in a special variety of political glass house,” he added.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the subcommittee Rep. Jack Kingston is chairman of.