The tea party's honest efforts to be a more effective and calculating force in conservative American politics might be about to blow up in its face.
Chris McDaniel, a Republican candidate for US Senate from Mississippi, was supposed to be this year's standard-bearer for a new and smarter tea party movement – a movement that would no longer nominate candidates who excited the conservative base in primaries but imploded in the general election. He was experienced as a state senator, and he was a smooth speaker and politician.
Yet less than two weeks from his June 3 primary, his campaign is danger of confirming all the old stereotypes.
So far, no one is accusing him of doing anything wrong. But a scandal of the most unseemly nature is creeping closer to him. Some of McDaniel's staunchest supporters have been arrested in connection with an online attack video that included a secret and likely illegal image taken in a nursing home of the bedridden wife of McDaniel's primary opponent, Sen. Thad Cochran.
Mr. McDaniel says he was not involved, and no evidence links him to the video. But regardless, in this instance, optics matter.
The scandal is precisely what tea party groups sought to avoid in focusing their money and efforts on McDaniel. Now, once again, the tea party has to fend off claims that its candidates are not ready for prime time – that the spotlight of a big election will reveal all their shortcomings. And for all the grass-roots enthusiasm the tea party can generate, money still drives politics, and donors might be growing weary of that script.
Moreover, the episode will only confirm to members of the Republican establishment that they are right to try and neuter the tea party – as they have begun to do with increasing success this year. After all, if even the most sensible tea party candidate of the cycle can be caught in the whiff of such scandal, then who among them can be trusted to bear the GOP's hopes?
In Mississippi, voters are so deeply red that the scandal probably won't matter to the balance of power in the Senate. Democratic candidate Travis Childers will be enjoying the infighting, but either McDaniel or Senator Cochran will likely remain the favorite in November.
Yet even the best-case scenario for the tea party doesn't look so rosy. Win or lose on June 3, McDaniel has not been cast in the best light by recent arrests.
First, conservative blogger Clayton Kelly was arrested May 16 and charged with exploiting a vulnerable adult. He is alleged to have taken the picture of Cochran's wife, who is diagnosed as being in the advanced stages of dementia. Though no one publicly suggested McDaniel was behind the video, Mr. Kelly is a strong McDaniel supporter and there are pictures on social media of him and McDaniel together. In the early hours after the story broke, the McDaniel campaign also gave conflicting signals about how much it knew about the video and when.
By the end of last week, McDaniel had sought to move on by refusing to discuss the scandal, but on Friday three more people with much closer ties to McDaniel were arrested on conspiracy charges. Among them were Mark Mayfield, a local tea party leader, and John Mary, who took over McDaniel's Right Side Radio talk show when McDaniel became a state senator. McDaniel has since co-hosted shows with Mr. Mary, who goes by the radio name of "John Bert."
If McDaniel were to win the Mississippi primary, he could face having to fend off the issue yet again – perhaps with new revelations – when the grand jury gets the case, probably in July, according to The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss.
Then there are the anonymous Twitter messages sent to the Mississippi media insinuating that Cochran is having an affair with a senior member of his staff – an allegation the Cochran campaign denies. Again, McDaniel might have nothing to do with the messages. But if that is the case, then his supporters are adding a lot of stones to his political baggage.
Because this is all a disaster when it comes to the goal of getting a conservative elected to Congress, which is really what the establishment cares most about.
Among the words written on Mississippi news websites during the past few days: "You could say the battle for the U.S. Senate from Mississippi has taken a turn for the worse. But then someone would have to ask, Which turn?"
Or perhaps the headline: "Another day, another bombshell in Mississippi Senate race."
And then there's MSNBC's catchy: "Messissippi."
This is not the sort of press that the Republican Party wants. Nor does it want Republican primary opponents providing Democratic challengers with ammunition.
While Mississippi might stay red regardless, Missouri, Indiana, and Delaware did not in past election cycles, and the establishment has had enough of those shenanigans.
Those lessons have already fueled the establishment's trouncing of tea party challengers in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Idaho, among other places. Even the tea party's one win, in the Senate race in Nebraska, produced a candidate who has pledged his allegiance to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the Grand Poobah of the Establishment.
Now, it seems, even if McDaniel wins, the tea party may have lost.