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By Jay Cost

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Michael Steele's Empty Threat

I have been talking over the last few weeks about the impotence of the national party units - particularly the national committees (see previous posts here and here).

Yesterday provided a great example of what I've been talking about. On his Fox News show, Neil Cavuto asked RNC Chairman what "retribution" the RNC would "exact" on the Republicans who defected on the stimulus bill.

This is an excellent test of party power. Here we have an important vote where nearly 99% of the Republican congressional caucus was in agreement. Does the national party possess the power to hold the defectors to account?

The answer from Steele...not really. Plenty of bluster, but nothing to worry any of the defectors (H/T Ben Smith):

So much for the RNC exercising political power on this one. Steele will do what the state parties will do. My hunch is that, at most, the state party would be neutral in the primaries.

But let's look at this from a worst-case scenario for a guy like Arlen Specter. Suppose the state party says, "Forget it! We're not with you!" The RNC follows suit. How much cash will Specter be missing out on?

We can answer this by looking at Specter's fundraising balance sheet from 2004. This will give us a sense of just how much the senior senator from Pennsylvania stands to lose, should the state party and the RNC bail on him.

In the 2004 cycle, Arlen Specter raised $14,953,355 in direct contributions. Of that, zero dollars came directly from the RNC. The state party made a $4,500 in-kind contribution. Additionally, a handful of Republican-sympathetic PACs* tossed in $5,000 apiece. There was nearly half a million dollars in coordinated contributions that the Republican Party as a whole spent - these are dollars that the Specter campaign and the party unit making the donation have a say in how they are spent. The RNC was responsible for about $38,000 of this and the state party was responsible for nothing.

Most of the party's effort came via the National Republican Senatorial Committee - the party's arm in the upper chamber. It spearheads the campaign for the Senate while the National Republican Congressional Committee does the same with the House. The RNC and the state parties usually play second fiddle - though in some years, like 1994, there has been a good bit of coordination.

Don't expect the NRSC to balk this cycle at helping Specter, who made a point (as most safe incumbents do) to help his fellow Senate Republicans in 2004. He gave tens of thousands of dollars to Ben Campbell, Jim Bunning, Charles Grassley, Bob Bennett, Don Nickles, Mike Crapo, Kit Bond, and Sam Brownback. He can expect to receive in return, should he need it this cycle. That's how it works.

Suppose, however, that the whole party apparatus gets behind Michael Steele and the Pennsylvania Republican Party to boycott Specter. What then? Even with all of these party dollars withheld, there is a simple, stark fact: an overwhelming majority of Specter's resources came from non-party sources in 2004, and the same will assuredly hold this cycle. He raised nearly $12 million from individuals and $3 million from PACs in 2004. By the end of 2008, he already had $5.8 million banked. Party dollars are barely a drop in Specter's bucket.

Bottom line: Arlen Specter does not need the Republican Party organizations - not the state party, not the RNC, and not even the NRSC. If anything, they need him. Michael Steele might be "open to everything," but the fact of the matter is that he's a paper tiger on this one. If Republicans are sick and tired of this, they need to focus on reshaping the rules that govern the relationship between party and candidates. Right now, they are geared almost exclusively for the benefit of candidates at the expense of the party.

* - Update, 6:30 PM - An earlier draft of this post erroneously stated that the Republican Issues Campaign PAC received $5,000 from the Republican National Committee in 2004. I regret the error.

-Jay Cost