WASHINGTON -- As Mark Kirk campaigns for the Senate seat once held by President Obama, the Republican congressman casts himself as a scourge of the pork-barrel, special-interest congressional spending known as "earmarks."
It wasn't always that way.
Just two years ago, the four-term congressman secured more than $30 million for 19 pet projects in and around his congressional district. They included an aquarium, a planetarium and a church outreach project. In some cases, people linked to the projects reciprocated with thousands of dollars in campaign donations for Kirk's re-election bids.
On Thursday, Kirk was offering a different message, railing at a news conference against Congress' "worst pork-barrel projects." The news conference will highlight Kirk's now-strident anti-earmark perspective -- and his evolution from participant to antagonist.
Kirk's new pitch is one strategy his party is using to try to claw its way back into power in next year's elections. Casting himself as a reformer in a state plagued by cronyism, Kirk and his playbook are modified versions of how Obama himself won an electoral landslide as the nation's reformer in chief.
But Kirk's own history with earmarks shows some of the hurdles the GOP will need to overcome, not just in his race but as a party out of power in search of a credible opposition message.
When members of Congress debated a 2008 spending bill, Kirk landed more than $1.1 million for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Planetarium board members had given more than $23,000 to Kirk's congressional campaigns from 2000 to 2008.
Kirk attached $119,000 in spending for a Christian outreach program to the 2008 spending bill. David Ross, the president of the board of directors of the Christian Outreach of Lutherans, the group that benefited from the earmark, gave $4,600 to Kirk between 2007 and 2008.
Overall, Kirk took in more than $63,000 from 2000 to 2008 from campaign donors with ties to nearly $5 million in earmarks, an Associated Press review of his campaign finance reports and his earmarks found.
After securing $30 million in earmarks in the 2008 spending bill, a figure that put him in the middle of the pack among his fellow members of Congress, Kirk did not ask for any in the 2009 spending bill. Earmarks before the 2008 fiscal year are more difficult to trace to their sponsors.
Since it became apparent that Obama's Senate seat would be up for grabs, Kirk has spoken out against the evils of earmarking, becoming the only member of the House Appropriations Committee -- which doles out billions of dollars -- to abstain from the practice. Most lawmakers who win coveted slots on the spending panel do so to steer federal money back home.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Kirk said that he stands by his earlier earmarks and that his ties between donors and projects for which he helped secure funding are coincidental. He said he made a conscious decision to give up earmarks after nearly eight years in office.
"The more I learned about the system, the more I didn't like it," Kirk said. "To be the strongest reformer you have to be, you have to come to the table making hard choices yourself."
Kirk said his personal tipping point came after the furor over earmarks for the "Bridge to Nowhere." The project, pushed by Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, would have cost nearly $400 million and connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with 50 residents.
Congress scrubbed funding for the project in 2005 -- a full two years before Kirk gave up earmarks for good -- but he still said it was the pivotal moment for him.
"It was a Republican earmark, from a Republican congressman," he said.
Whatever its motivation, Kirk's turnaround had propitious timing for his career.
Illinois leans Democratic, but Republicans are optimistic that ethics problems for leading Democrats in the state can give a well-positioned GOP candidate a lift in 2010. Kirk's anti-spending pitch comes in a state where former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and indicted for, among other things, allegedly attempting to sell the Senate seat Kirk seeks.
Watchdog groups say Kirk stands out for his posture on earmarks, even if he's come to it recently.
"I'd rather have a member come late to that point of view than never at all," said David E. Williams of Citizens Against Government Waste, which tracks congressional spending. "There are plenty of others who aren't even making an effort."
Members of Williams' group planned to appear with Kirk at his news conference, a sign of how much such groups appreciate Kirk's conversion.
Republicans are using similar fiscal-responsibility messages in other key races as they try for a comeback next year.
GOP hopefuls in Colorado, California and Pennsylvania have all hit out at spending to some extent. And in Florida, the issue is central to a contested primary between popular Gov. Charlie Crist and his underdog opponent, former state Rep. Marco Rubio, who has targeted Crist's support of the federal stimulus bill.
Whether the pitch succeeds for Kirk will tell its own story for the GOP. When he announced his candidacy for the Senate, national Republicans hailed it as a recruiting coup, a sign that not only would Republicans play offense in 2010, but that they'd be competitive all across the country.