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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Can the State Parties Pressure GOP Senators on Immigration?

This is a question one might be inclined to ask after reading this article. Though the query is not explicitly raised, it came to my mind after this lead:

President Bush's immigration bill is hurting fundraising by the Republican National Committee, but fierce grass-roots opposition to the legislation is helping several state Republican parties.

Tina Benkiser, chairwoman of the Republican Party in the president's home state of Texas, says raising money has been successful "in large part to our principled stance against illegal immigration." Since the beginning of 2006, when substantial immigration debate began, she says, "the Republican Party of Texas has experienced an exponential increase in direct-mail donations from supporters statewide.

So, can the state Republican parties force the GOP caucus to change its mind?

The answer is: probably not.

The state party might be able to exercise a soft power over senators insofar as it is a good barometer of the mood of the party-in-the-electorate. This can matter. Obviously, senators do not want to alienate their bases in such a way that they lose their support in the next election. However, one of the best things about being in the Senate is that you can legislate without being too worried about the public mood. This is by design. Remember that initially state legislators selected senators. The 17th amendment brought some democratic accountability to the upper chamber of Congress, but senators are still comfortably removed from the whims of the public.

Beyond this soft power, which will be muted by the six-year term of senators, the state party really has little-to-no influence on incumbent federal legislators. The state party's role is really one of limited and unconditional support for incumbent federal partisans. To the extent that it expends resources on behalf of federal candidates, there really are few strings attached. A state party could - in theory at least - influence senators by threatening to recruit and endorse a primary challenger. But I can think of no instances in recent history where that has happened. This is unsurprising. Defeating an incumbent senator in a primary would probably be tantamount to handing the seat over to the other side. Thus, so long as your incumbent demonstrates some appreciable difference between him/herself and the other party, supporting him/her is still the rational choice.

No - the state party really has little influence over senators. Its relationship is really characterized by service - it helps its senators win reelection. While this article seconds what we already knew - the GOP grassroots is mightily agitated over this bill - I cannot imagine a single senator worrying about some kind of retribution from his or her state party.

-Jay Cost