LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Ignoring Republican complaints about wasteful federal spending, Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is reminding voters – in dollars – of what's she's done for Arkansas during nearly 16 years in Washington.
Nearly every day, her campaign and Senate offices trumpet money that she's helped secure for her home state – from $13,811 for the Hope Police Department to buy a new cruiser to a $102 million stimulus-funded grant for the state to pay for broadband Internet.
Defending projects typically derided as pork is a tricky stance for a vulnerable incumbent, but Lincoln has turned her re-election fight into an argument for pet projects – calling them the "great equalizer" for small, rural states like Arkansas.
"I'm going to fight hard for my state because, let me tell you, these dollars are going to go somewhere else if we don't get them," Lincoln told The Associated Press.
It's a return to the basics for Lincoln, who is trailing in most polls. She's faced anger from both the right and the left, with liberal activists trying unsuccessfully earlier this year to throw her out of office in the Democratic primary.
Her opponent, Republican Congressman John Boozman, also brought millions of dollars in projects to his Arkansas district before signing on to a House GOP moratorium on earmarks. Lincoln says he's sacrificing the state's interests for politics.
Lincoln co-sponsored 91 earmarks in the 2010 budget totaling nearly $115 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Boozman sponsored or co-sponsored 31 earmarks totaling more than $30 million the same year.
Earmarks are sought under a transparent process, Lincoln said.
"People talk about earmarks like it's just money coming out of a plane," she said. "It's just not at all. ... You fight hard for those dollars because other states realize too that it's a way to equalize what's coming to their states."
Boozman says he's not opposed to all earmarks and doesn't single out any projects by Lincoln that he'd call wasteful. But he said he does want the process for requesting and receiving the dollars to be reformed.
"Earmarks in and of themselves are not bad," Boozman said. "The process and the way they were obtained had broken down."
Lincoln's earmark defense is part of her broader strategy to highlight her status in Washington. During a bruising primary fight against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter that ended with her June runoff victory, Lincoln argued that her chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee was an asset to the state.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who serves on the Appropriations and Energy committees, had similarly been highlighting her seniority as she tried to fend off a challenge in Tuesday's GOP primary. That may have backfired, however, as she trails challenger Joe Miller in a surprisingly tight contest that remains too close to call.
And Washington Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat seeking re-election, is unapologetic about the millions of dollars in earmarks she's secured for her state as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairwoman of its transportation subcommittee.
"You can opt out of that, but that means every community in our state is going to be left behind," Murray said earlier this year. "That money is still going to be allocated in the budget, but it's just going to go to California or New York."
Lincoln has cited as her biggest accomplishments in her first year as agriculture chairman her work on a portion of the financial overhaul bill regulating derivatives, disaster aid for farmers and child nutrition legislation approved by the Senate.
But two of those – the disaster aid package and the child nutrition bill – remain in limbo. Lincoln said she's confident both will become reality and says her chairmanship represents the amount of work she's put into representing her state.
"You work hard to get into places where you know you can be beneficial," Lincoln said.
If the chairmanship doesn't help her make that point, earmarks might. A Pew Research Center for People and the Press/National Journal Congressional Connection poll this month showed that 53 percent of Americans say they're more likely to vote for a candidate with a record of delivering earmarks for their districts. A third of those surveyed said it would make no difference, while 12 percent said they'd be less likely to vote for such a candidate.
Michael Dimock, the center's associate director, noted that this comes as polls are also showing widespread frustration over government spending. Lawmakers seeking re-election face voters who hate earmarks as an abstract idea, but embrace them as local projects benefiting their community, he said.
"This year it's a tougher, more delicate line because there is this very anti-government, anti-spending, spend-thrifty sentiment out there when you come home and tout the benefits you've delivered," Dimock said.
Associated Press writers Curt Woodward in Olympia, Wash., and Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, contributed to this report.