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Earmark Ban Changes Campaign Strategy

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Sen. Lamar Alexander has acknowledged that touting local projects is a useful campaign tool.

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Of course, 2008 was a different time. Republicans across the country were forced to focus on local issues because, nationally, they were being consumed by a Democratic wave election and backlash to the George W. Bush administration. That was also before McConnell stated his No. 1 priority was to make Barack Obama a one-term president.

But the tea party wave of 2010 has provided a different challenge to both parties: Show you’re involved in local issues without bragging about spending taxpayer money.

If lawmakers can’t talk about earmarks, some sources wondered, what can they talk about? This Congress has been considered one of the least productive in recent memory.

“It’s emblematic of a time that obviously has gone by, but the sentiment remains. What those ads all illustrated was that he cared deeply about local entities that these people invested much of their lives in,” said a senior Republican aide of the McConnell ads. “That sentiment doesn’t change, even if the deliverable does.”

Last month, for example, McConnell went to Olive Hill, Ky., to visit a garment factory he helped keep open. The senior Senator assisted by preventing the factory from losing a government contract to a larger company.

But it’s unclear whether those kinds of actions will be enough.

“Whereas before you could say, Congressman X spearheaded the effort to bring dollars to this project, that’s going to be harder,” said a Senate Democratic aide, emphasizing that many local projects are still being funded by the Obama administration.

“Campaigns are going to have to be a bit more creative in terms of taking credit, and then of course, you have the question of hypocrisy, cutting spending and saying ‘no’ versus taking credit,” the Democratic aide continued.

Senate campaigns in 2012, regardless of party, are shying away from playing up local projects.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was one of the leading voices in her party against Congressionally directed spending. And Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, in a tough race in Montana, has released nearly a half-dozen ads playing up his positive personal attributes and Montana roots but not the money he’s brought to the state.

Of the many Republicans approached for this story most focused on anti-spending talking points.

“We’re broke. So that was a different time, and I think people are very sensitive [to the deficit],” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) of ads that GOP Members ran in previous cycles.

“I can tell you that my constituents and others come asking for the federal government to fund projects, but we have to confront them as we have had to confront ourselves with the harsh reality that we’re in a crisis,” added Cornyn, who between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2010 sponsored earmarks worth $416 million.

The campaign chairman said the issue has not come up in larger conversations at the NRSC because “people realize that running on earmarks is probably a losing strategy particularly in this environment.”

Those close to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also said they have not had conversations on how campaigns have evolved and how that might affect their strategy.

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