WASHINGTON — When Harry Reid, the No. 1 Democrat in the Senate, began his re-election campaign last year, he ran ads touting his ability to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in federal largess back to Nevada.
"From Vegas to Reno, Carson City to Elko, he's helped build roads, hospitals and schools," said an early television ad.
His poll numbers barely moved. Now, Reid's running an ad boasting that he's brought more than 1,300 "green jobs" to the state. He's still neck and neck with tea party favorite Sharron Angle.
Republicans are betting that Nevada's angry electorate — infused with many tea party insurgents eager to vote for Angle — is not nearly as receptive to the old-fashioned politics of pork as it was when Reid easily won re-election six years ago.
The Senate's majority leader is hardly alone. The electoral landscape is filled with incumbents who are finding that, with the federal budget deficit easily topping $1 trillion, bringing home the bacon isn't working as well as it used to.
"Nobody in this environment is going to tout, 'Look at me spending,' " said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She said fewer politicians are running for re-election bragging about their ability to procure back-home "earmarks" like water projects, community health clinics, road repairs and grants to local police departments.
Instead, more and more candidates — mostly but not exclusively Republicans — are swearing off earmarks, complaining about out-of-control spending and vowing not to be co-opted by the go-along/get-along culture on Capitol Hill. Among Republican candidates for the Senate, where earmarking is an entrenched custom among all but a handful of members, hardly any of a stoutly conservative group of candidates are embracing the practice.
"Congress has created a federal government that's too big and too expensive," said Senate candidate Mike Lee of Utah, who defeated incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett in GOP caucuses this spring after swearing off earmarks. "One of the many symptoms or manifestations of that is pork spending, which is the political lubricant that keeps this big machine going and keeps it growing."
Earmarks totaled about $16 billion in the 2010 budget year, about one-half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. That's down by one-third from the heights reached when Republicans controlled Congress. Democrats, who have a different way of calculating, say the cut is more like 50 percent.
Most earmarks have merit, but they became outsized symbols of wasteful spending and goofy nonsense with projects like the $200 million-plus, later canceled "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska or an indoor rain forest in Iowa.
Earmarks have also spawned a "pay to play" culture in which lobbyists and business executives seeking earmarks lubricate the system with campaign contributions.
Opinion polls show that voters continue to appreciate pet projects.
A survey this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, National Journal and the Society for Human Resource Management found that 53 percent of voters would be more likely to vote for someone who brings home the bacon, with just 11 percent less likely — though 32 percent said it wouldn't make a difference.
Such numbers are of little solace to Bennett, whose generous sprinkling of earmarks across Utah didn't help him with staunchly conservative GOP caucus-goers.
Neither did earmarks rescue Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in her bitter GOP primary battle against Joe Miller, who won substantial support from anti-spending tea party activists. Murkowski is waging a write-in campaign as she seeks to claim the mantle of the late GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, whose earmarks were a major force in the sprawling state's economy.
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