STEELE’S SPENDING SPREE…. There’s apparently some division among Republican leaders about whether (and how much) to be optimistic about the midterm cycle, but whether expectations are high or low, the party will need flush campaign coffers to execute an effective election-year strategy.

In the case of the Republican National Committee, that may prove to be a problem.

A 2009 spending spree has left the Republican National Committee (RNC) with its worst election-year cash flow this decade.

The largest GOP party committee has $8.7 million in the bank heading into an election year with 37 governors’ races, a dozen major Senate contests, dozens more in the House and an all-important redistricting cycle on the horizon.

Said one RNC official: “It is very troubling, and the thing is, most people don’t understand this. But it is really troubling.”

As a rule, the RNC and DNC spend the year before an election retiring their debts and filling their coffers. In 2009, however, the RNC’s finances got worse — Steele started with $22.8 million in cash, and about a year later, has $8.7 million. The difference was the RNC’s investments in the off-year elections, most notably New Jersey’s and Virginia’s gubernatorial races.

The investments paid some dividends — Republicans lost all five of 2009’s congressional special elections, though they won both gubernatorial campaigns — but the RNC nevertheless spent more than $90 million in an off-year and doesn’t start 2010 on the right financial footing.

The DNC, meanwhile, has $13 million in the bank, with no debt. Since the DNC was in worse shape when Steele took the reins at the RNC, and ended the year in better shape, Republican frustration is understandable. Many party insiders questioned whether Steele would be a trustworthy steward of the RNC’s checkbook, and those fears now seem justified.

The RNC may, of course, get its finances back on track. If the economy improves, and the grassroots believe a takeover of at least one chamber is a possibility, Steele’s coffers may yet fill up in time.

But if Republican candidates struggle because Steele ran out of money far too early, expect him to be run out of town on a rail before the year’s end.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.