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Carrots and Sticks for Specter: A Model for Democrats?

Chris Cillizza reports that NRSC chair John Cornyn is now prepared to endorse Senate Arlen Specter, who will face a tough primary fight against conservative rival Pat Toomey. As Cillizza notes, it his hoped that this endorsement will diminish the enthusiasm of party activists for Toomey, particularly if they regard Cornyn’s veiled threat of withholding funds from Toomey should he become the Republican nominee as credible.

Is this actually liable to make much difference in the primary fight? I doubt that rank-and-file Pennsylvanians care all that much about whom John Cornyn endorses. Moreover, withholding funds from Toomey is something of an idle threat, mainly because this is something that would probably have happened anyway. The Senate playing field is very broad in 2010, and Toomey would be a heavy underdog against a credible Democratic opponent. If he becomes the nominee, the NRSC will be better off spending its resources in Ohio or Connecticut or Missouri, regardless of any grudge it might or might not have against him.

Nevertheless, the endorsement certainly can’t hurt Specter in the primary, and if the NRSC is willing to put some muscle behind its words — which might mean devoting resources to Specter or arranging for high-profile Republicans like John McCain to campaign on his behalf — it could be a considerable asset to him.

What’s interesting about the endorsement is the contrast it sets up with the RNC Chair Michael Steele’s threat (albeit a somewhat obtuse and overreported one) to back primary challengers against moderates like Specter, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. This being Michael Steele, I have my doubts about whether he and Cornyn were operating some sort of coordinated strategy; nevertheless, it may have many of the same effects as one. In fact, the message to Specter seems to have been rather clear: support the Employee Free Choice Act, and we’re backing Toomey; drop your support for it (as Specter did), and we’re backing you. Although Specter is by no means out of the woods in either the primary or the general election (where his flip-flop on EFCA could hurt him), this potentially sets up a win-win for the Republicans: blocking EFCA from passing while getting to keep the seat in Pennsylvania too.

It seems to me, in fact, that there are two things Democrats might consider duplicating from this strategy as they attempt to apply pressure from the left and keep their own party caucus in line. First, the message to Specter included both a carrot and a stick. Democrats, in general, have been guilty of coddling their less-progressive members (offering only carrots but not sticks). But there are also risks in merely providing pressure without offering rewards, especially if members are being asked to lend their support to issues that might make them electorally vulnerable. Secondly, the carrots and sticks seem to have been offered in conjunction with a particular piece of legislation — EFCA — which appears to be particularly important for the Republicans. The GOP wasn’t asking the world of Specter — nor should they have been, since if Specter had become a party-liner like Rick Santorum, he would almost certainly have met the same electoral fate. They were really just asking for this one vote.

There are two other elements that are needed to make such a strategy successful. First is the presence of a credible primary challenger — in this case Toomey. Personally, I think Toomey is a little bit too credible — the difference between his chances of a defeating a Democrat in November 2010 (perhaps 10 percent) and Specter’s (perhaps 75 or 80 percent) are so large that this could not have been a risk worth undertaking deliberately. But clearly, a party should be willing to sacrifice some probability of losing a Senate seat for greater ideological fealty; the goal is to maximize the number of votes on certain key issues, and not the number of seats. A party is in much better position to take such measured risks when it has credible primary opponents available. The second element is that in the long-run, a party must be willing to carry out on both its threats and its rewards. If the NRSC, fearing a backlash from conservatives, conveniently forgets about Specter once the GOP primary comes around, or alternatively (in the world where Specter had supported EFCA) had decided that Toomey was too risky and supported Specter anyway, their tactics will have much less impact the next time around.

The difficulty that a party apparatus faces when dealing with its more moderate members is in deciding which issues are essential and which can be sacrificed. This is especially so because the terms “party” and “party apparatus”, as I have been using them, are really just abstractions, consisting of a number of independent actors (the RNC, the NRSC, partisan interest groups, unaffiliated activists, bloggers, talk-radio hosts, influential politicians, etc.) who may disagree about their legislative priorities. That is, I don’t think mere tactical coordination is enough; there must also be strategic coordination, by which I mean serious discussions about which pieces of policy are most important to advancing a party’s long-run agenda. Different approaches might be applied toward Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, for instance, depending on whether Democrats want her vote on EFCA or her vote on health care.

There may also be a smaller but more immediate opportunity available to Democrats with regard to Specter and Pennsylvania. Specter gets elected in Pennsylvania in spite of the (R) by his name and not because of it; his popularity far exceeds that of the Republican brand in the state. Democrats, therefore, should consider running commercials that highlight Cornyn’s endorsement and portray Specter as selling out Pennsylvania to placate Congressional Republicans. The core of Specter’s brand is his purported independence; if his change of heart on EFCA can be characterized as having been motivated in response to a threat, rather than honest (re-)assessment of the issues, it could be doubly damaging to him in the general election.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.