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Steele’s Idle Threat

Republican chairman Michael Steele took Neal Cavuto’s bait and suggested that he might be amendable to punishing the three Republican senators — Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter — who voted for the stimulus package by supporting primary challenges and/or cutting off funding.

There’s just one problem with this. In Pennsylvania and especially in Maine, having a (R) by your name is a liability, not an asset. With leaners included, Democrats have roughly a 19-point partisan ID advantage in Maine and 16 points in the Keystone State. Collins, Snowe and Specter get re-elected in spite of being Republican, not because of it.

Theoretically, moreover, there would be little to stop any of them from pulling a Jeffords and caucusing with the Democrats. If one assumes that the principal motivation of each Senator is to win re-election — and that’s never a bad guess — then the three Republicans must already be wondering whether life might be easier in the Democratic Party (or more likely, as independents who caucused with the Dems). If Steele pushes too far, he risks actuating this outcome.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.