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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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NRSC Set To Back Specter

This snippet from the Washington Post's overview of Arlen Specter's candidacy stuck out at me:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has written a letter to fellow Republicans asking them to support Specter.

"While I doubt Arlen could win an election in my home state of Texas, I am certain that I could not get elected in Pennsylvania," Cornyn wrote. "I believe that Senator Specter is our best bet to keep this Senate seat in the GOP column."

In a sign of party support, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's Bluegrass PAC contributed $10,000 to Specter last month.

This is par for the course. Typically, party committees back their incumbent candidates, even a heterodox like Arlen Specter. In 2004, the NRSC contributed $320,000 in Specter's effort to defeat Toomey, and his fellow senators contributed $83,000 prior to the primary election. In contrast, while Toomey received some aid from outside groups (like Club for Growth) and fellow House members, sitting Senators did not support his cause.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. For instance, in 2002 the NRSC basically withheld support of Bob Smith in New Hampshire, contributing just $15,500 nearly 10 months before the primary. While a few sitting senators endorsed Smith, others endorsed his opponent, John Sununu, who had the endorsement of George H.W. Bush and Andy Card, George W. Bush's chief of staff at the time of the primary. Plenty of incumbent senators tossed in thousands of dollars to help him defeat Smith in the primary.

Clearly, that will not be happening with Arlen Specter this cycle. Instead, look for a move against Jim Bunning. The party right now is doing everything it can to induce him to step aside. If he doesn't, it will be interesting to see if and how the GOP supports his opponent. The reason is best summarized by Richard Shelby's justification of backing Sununu over Smith: "'It was not personal at all, it was strategic." Exactly. The party is in pursuit of a majority, and it is likely to back the candidate most likely to win. In most cases, this is the incumbent.

In my opinion, I think the GOP is making the right move here. While I appreciate that conservatives are aggravated with Arlen Specter and his persistent moderation - not to mention his cantankerous nature - I have trouble seeing how a coldly rational cost-benefit analysis justifies the challenge. The trouble is that Toomey's chance of winning the Senate seat will be substantially lower than Specter's. This decreased probability of victory must be balanced with whatever increased conservatism he might exhibit in the Senate should he win - which makes me think that overall the party will be worse off. And then of course there is the cash that will be spent on the primary alone - as mentioned above, the NRSC alone contributed $320,000 in 2004. That is money that could have gone to help Republicans defeat Democrats.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the party's support is limited. There are pretty strict rules about how much a party can give directly to a candidate, or even coordinate with a candidate on spending shared dollars. Parties have unlimited capacity to spend independently of candidates - but that means there is no coordination between the two, and thus the prospect of inefficiency and even embarassment.

I suppose you could say that this is the ying to the candidate control yang. Party organizations in our system are quite weak. Just as the party cannot really induce Arlen Specter to be a "better" Republican - it cannot stop Toomey from challenging him, nor can it even contribute a difference-making sum to save the senior senator from Pennsylvania. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, candidates like Specter basically stand on their own.

-Jay Cost