Federal Help Boosts Vulnerable Democrats in 2010 Election

Associated Press + More

Vice President Joe Biden has traveled extensively to promote projects funded by stimulus money, including a visit in June to Louisville, Ky., where Rep. John Yarmuth is facing a challenge from Republican Todd Lally, a pilot with tea party support. Yarmuth invited Biden to a General Electric Appliance Park the company is expanding with the help of a $25 million stimulus tax credit.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has crisscrossed the country this year announcing hundreds of millions in federal grants to extend broadband Internet access to rural areas under a stimulus-funded programs. Many of them have gone to battleground districts and states such as Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, California and Arizona.

Even in a year when antipathy toward incumbents is rampant and government is something of a dirty word, savvy lawmakers are taking advantage of their offices to tout the favors they've secured and goodies they've won by using their connections and their votes to help constituents.

Lawmakers can use taxpayer-funded mail to communicate with voters at home about their accomplishments, except in certain times close to an election, and they are always permitted to send letters to fewer than 500 people in their districts — known as "499s" — about key issues.

Some have drawn fire for using the practice. Democrat Bill Hedrick, who's challenging GOP Rep. Ken Calvert in Southern California, criticized the congressman last month for sending reams of mailers to constituents that Hedrick called "free publicity" just weeks before Election Day.

Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell of Arizona wrote to constituents on his official letterhead to hail the news that 20 companies in the state — two are major employers in his district — had been accepted into a new program created by the health care law to help reduce costs for early retirees. A Republican-backed group is targeting Mitchell for voting for the legislation, saying he "betrayed" his constituents.

Oliver Schwab, a spokesman for Mitchell's Republican opponent, David Schweikert, said the missive amounted to a "gross abuse of taxpayers' dollars to benefit Congressman Mitchell's campaign chances."

Mitchell's spokeswoman says he's being criticized for keeping Arizonans up to date. "In the age of declining newspaper circulation and contracting newsrooms, the congressman tries to inform as many people as possible about things happening in Congress that could impact their lives," said Sarah Coppersmith.

Like a well-timed appearance by a Cabinet official or a grant for a high-profile project in a lawmaker's backyard, the communications are perfectly legal.

"It's really easy to write (taxpayer-funded mail) in a way that doesn't sound like campaign literature when in fact it is," Ellis said. "It's a huge perk of incumbency."

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