ATLANTA — 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.
Cochran is the committee's second-ranking GOP member and McConnell is No. 3. Kingston, who's running for an open Senate seat, heads the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education.
Cochran talks up the prospect that he would be chairman if re-elected. Kingston pitches his contributions to Georgia's agricultural industry and military installations.
All three supported the 2010 ban on earmarks, special measures inserted into bills at the behest of one or a few lawmakers. McConnell and Cochran got on board only after the tea party fueled Republicans' 2010 House victories. Kingston started pushing for the ban several years earlier.
Each voted against last October's deal to raise the nation's borrowing limit and reopen government after a partial shutdown, though McConnell helped negotiate the package. He and Cochran supported procedural maneuvers allowing the final floor vote, in which they voted no.
All three have voted previously to increase the nation's debt limit.
Their critics face a balancing act of their own as the conservative purity test forces them to answer questions about their own records in lower elected offices and the private sector. In Georgia, some of the challengers even advocate for spending restraint everywhere except at home.
Kingston is one of three U.S. House members vying for promotion to the Senate in Georgia, along with Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey. Two other top GOP hopefuls — Karen Handel and David Perdue — saddle the congressmen with responsibility for the nation's balance sheet, noting their previous votes for deficit budgets and debt-limit increases.
But Kingston, the only candidate with a budget leadership post, gets hit from both sides.
At the most recent debate, Handel, a former secretary of state, and Perdue, a former Reebok and Dollar General CEO, blasted Kingston because a planned Savannah port expansion in Kingston's district lacks financing. Previously, the candidates focused their ire on Obama for not financing the project.
Gingrey and Broun hammered Kingston for helping negotiate recent changes to the federal flood insurance program. Echoing national conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, Broun and Gingrey said taxpayers shouldn't back flood insurance at all.
Kingston called his colleagues' flood insurance position oversimplified. He noted that the fix generates more revenue from higher premiums, while capping annual increases to protect households and businesses from unmanageable payments, which he said "cause too much economic disruption."
As for the long-sought port development, Kingston avoids accusing his opponents of hypocrisy on fiscal restraint, instead chiding them for not working for the federal support they want. "They have no fingerprints on anything," he said. "I've been engaged from the beginning."
For Cochran, the same conundrum threatens to end a four-decade career, almost all in the Senate.
Cochran has steered billions back to his small state, never more conspicuously than after Hurricane Katrina. His official Senate biography cites $87 billion in aid across multiple states and a long list of Mississippi parks and programs he's helped by "effectively [using] his seniority."
McDaniel, who's giving Cochran his first serious challenge in 30 years, points to Cochran's votes raising the nation's borrowing limit, increasing taxes under President George H.W. Bush and supporting mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "Thad Cochran is a gentleman," McDaniel told The Associated Press, "but ... his voting record demonstrates a 40-year history of more government and more spending."
Cochran's supporters have fired back at McDaniel's record as a state senator, including his support for a series of state bond bills.
Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member and leader of a super political action committee that backs Cochran, said, "If he wants to say Senator Cochran isn't conservative enough, he should look at himself."
In Kentucky, Louisville businessman Matt Bevin tries to paints McConnell as a capitulator to Obama, most recently for the deal to reopen government.
Bevin and the national conservative groups backing him blasted inclusion of a $1.2 billion bonus — an authorization for more work, rather than a direct appropriation — for an Ohio River dam project that benefits Kentucky.
McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said Bevin, who trails badly in polls, is dishonest when framing the project as a McConnell earmark given that other senators — Democrat Barbara Boxer of California among them — pushed for the measure.
Bevin reminds Kentucky voters that McConnell called the bank rescue of 2008 "the Senate at its finest." That line of attack forced Bevin to explain his signature on 2008 report from his investment firm saying the Troubled Asset Relief Program should not be called a "bailout" and praising the effective nationalization of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Bevin's campaign said another executive at Veracity Funds wrote the analysis, while his signature was a formality.
Rehm, the strategist who said he's undecided in the Georgia primary, said the tit for tat puts all Republicans in an impossible position as they campaign and govern. "It's a structural impediment to the good, old-fashioned horse trading that defines the legislative process," he said.
Kingston acknowledged some frustration but said it's part of politics: "If you serve for 21 years, then someone can always cherry-pick your votes."