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District pork or Trump loyalty? West Virginia primary shows what Republican voters value most.

Candidate Alex Mooney
Alex Mooney (Photo: creative commons license)

Which matters more in Republican electoral politics today–loyalty to Trump or loyalty to delivering policy promises? A recent West Virginia primary suggests Trump is (still) king of the GOP, even when that means leaving money on the table.

Last Tuesday, Rep David McKinley (R-WV) lost his primary election to fellow House Republican Alex Mooney. These Republican House incumbents were pitted against each other because West Virginia lost one House seat because of the 2020 census. McKinley was broadly seen as being the more moderate of the two, having been endorsed by West Virginia’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. Mooney is considerably more conservative and was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Ironically, McKinley helped deliver considerable resources to his district but was seen as a partisan traitor in the process. McKinley voted for President Biden’s 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which brought over $10 billion dollars to West Virginia. By conventional political wisdom, that’s a political coup. However, it proved to be an albatross for McKinley: the bill was primarily associated with a Democratic President, and passed the House almost exclusively on the strength of Democratic votes – McKinley was one of only 14 Republicans to vote for it.

In some ways, McKinley’s loss confirms what political scientists know about how pork influences Congress members’ reelection chances, and in some ways, it goes far beyond what we thought we knew.

While you might think that any pork is good pork, a lot of evidence suggests that delivering goods to one’s district does not equally benefit Republican and Democratic members of Congress. By and large, pork-barrel spending only helps Democrats win reelection. For Republicans, taking credit for government spending doesn’t seem to improve their reelection chances.

What’s behind the partisan differential in how voters value particularistic district benefits? One theory that has some empirical support is the idea that Republican and Democratic voters value different things. Government spending, the thinking goes, doesn’t comport well with a conservative political outlook which prioritizes small government and low spending As a result, conservative voters don’t necessarily want the government providing the benefits that come with pork-barrel spending, and don’t reward their (largely Republican) members of Congress when they take credit for providing those benefits.

more than anything, Republican voters want their elected officials to be loyal to the conservative movement

But something else may cause Republican voters to eschew the benefits of government spending. Both old and new research shows that voters’ partisanship reflects more than ideology or policy preferences. Rather, partisanship is a deep-seated social identity related to how we view ourselves. And in particular, among Republicans, voters aren’t necessarily looking for their politicians to deliver specific policies. Rather, more than anything, Republican voters want their elected officials to be loyal to the conservative movement.

The in-group identity approach to understanding political behavior helps explain some otherwise odd Republican moves in favor of unpopular or even objectively damaging policy positions, such as Texas governor Greg Abbott’s closure of the Mexican border to truck trade, or Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ eagerness to pick a fight with the Disney corporation.

In McKinley’s case, both phenomena are probably at play. West Virginia Republican voters may not have valued the infrastructure haul as much as, say, Democratic voters might have, and voting for Mooney was an opportunity to signal alignment with the most notable Republican in the field – Donald Trump. Voters who preferred Mooney over McKinley may have seen it as a way of punishing McKinley for abandoning the Republican “team” when he joined Democrats in voting for the infrastructure bill.

From a political standpoint, McKinley made exactly the wrong calculation and is getting the worst of both worlds.

The take-home point here is not just that Republican voters’ policy preferences are incompatible with rewarding members of Congress for delivering government spending, it’s that voters aren’t even necessarily thinking about their policy preferences when they vote. Their indifference to pork-barrel spending may just be one element of their broader pivot away from policy concerns and toward conservative identity concerns.

As for McKinley, Republican members of Congress (and other politicians) will probably file his story right next to Eric Cantor's primary loss as another object lesson why members should never, ever, not even once, compromise or side with Democrats.

This type of unwillingness to compromise, share power, or negotiate with political opponents contradicts the democratic values on which the legislative process was designed. Congress cannot produce public policy in any consistent manner if opposite partisans are not willing to come to the table. Ever.

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