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.
"These appropriations aren't wasteful spending; they aren't 'pork,'" Murkowski says in a news release detailing a bevy of recent earmarks, such as $333,500 for the redevelopment of an abandoned cannery property in Craig, Alaska.
The anti-earmark candidates promise to shake up a Capitol culture in which earmarking is seen by most lawmakers as a birthright. In the House, Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has never sought an earmark, earlier this year orchestrated a GOP rules change in which the party swore off earmarks.
But the boycott only applies to this year's round of spending bills, and the no-earmarks promise was conspicuously missing from the House Republicans' "Pledge to America" manifesto. But Boehner is likely to push the issue again and a key pro-earmark lawmaker, Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., now supports extending the moratorium. Lewis aspires to chair the Appropriations Committee if Republicans take over the House.
In the Senate, only a handful of members foreswear earmarks. GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is an avid earmarker — he ran ads in the last election cycle touting his ability to deliver — as are the other members of the GOP leadership.
But renegades like Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., are pushing the party to give up earmarks. DeMint is counting on anti-earmark reinforcements from the election to help him force a vote on changing GOP conference rules to require Republicans to abandon the practice. An overwhelming majority of new GOP candidates have taken the no-pork pledge, a prerequisite for DeMint's endorsement and support from his fundraising network.
"Most people think that the biggest issue Republicans lost their way on was spending," said Matt Hoskins, a spokesman for DeMint's political action committee, the Senate Conservatives Fund. "There's no bigger example of that than earmarks."
Democrats like Reid and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who still tout their ability to deliver taxpayer money back to their states, find themselves running neck and neck against Republicans who have sworn them off.
"The old-school measurement of a great senator was how much pork you could drag home," said Republican Dino Rossi, Murray's opponent. "I just don't think this is the year to be talking about pork."
Added Rossi, "Which part of 'we're broke' don't you understand?"Comment on this story
Some Democrats are getting into the anti-earmark act as well. In the Missouri Senate race, Democrat Robin Carnahan eschews earmarks in contrast to Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, a long-standing advocate of earmarking who's obtained more than his share during his years in the GOP leadership.
More typical is Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., who faces a tough re-election fight in New York's Hudson Valley but boasts of earmarks such as $2 million for a water microfiltration plant in Warwick so that children there could have clean drinking water.
"My opponent has taken a written pledge not to ask for that money," Hall said in a recent interview. "I'll stand up and defend them (earmarks). There's no Bridge to Nowhere here."
Associated Press writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report.