July 3

Chris McDaniel, who lost a runoff election to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), is not giving up. Not only has he been raising money to mount a legal challenge to Cochran’s victory, the state senator and radio host is now offering $1,000 to anyone who comes forward with evidence of electoral shenanigans in last week’s vote. It seems that McDaniel doesn’t understand how this whole thing is supposed to work. I wouldn’t be surprised if even some of the people who supported him in his campaign to unseat Cochran start distancing themselves from him before long.

This has nothing to do with the merit of McDaniel’s claim of “thousands of voting irregularities and a stolen election.” It’s about how the tea party works and what its tactics are meant to accomplish.

Chris McDaniel wanted to go to the Senate, and the people who supported him wanted that, too. But just by making the runoff, McDaniel served his purpose for the tea party, which was to maintain the appropriate level of fear among Republican elected officials. After some primaries in which Republicans easily dispatched challenges from the right, Eric Cantor’s loss and Cochran’s near-loss have put the fear of the right back into Republicans in Congress. So for the tea party, it’s mission accomplished. At this point, the tiny chance that McDaniel might actually prevail in a lawsuit doesn’t make it worth their while to fight for, particularly given that the longer he keeps up this battle, the crazier he looks — and by extension, the less reasonable he makes his supporters look.

I’m not saying that everything is about appearances for the tea party and that they don’t have policy goals, because they do. But they understand that electing committed tea partiers is only one way to achieve those goals. Keeping ordinary Republicans terrified is another way, and almost as effective.

Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Steve Pope/Getty Images)

Before you accuse me of giving them too much credit, I also understand that the tea party’s policy goals almost never get accomplished, and failure doesn’t necessarily harm them. Each failure — a lost election, a government shutdown that ends, a budget that gets passed — can be cast as a betrayal, maintaining the urgency of the crusade. But part of the movement’s power comes from the fact that it isn’t dependent on any one leader or even a group of leaders. A politician whom tea partiers love today can easily be cast aside if he shows glimmers of reasonableness tomorrow, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was after he began working on immigration reform. (It may be hard to remember now, but when Rubio got elected in 2010, he was a tea party darling). There will always be more people to challenge the establishment, and more quisling Republicans who need to be taught a lesson.

So the tea party has a cycle it runs through: Get angry, find a Republican target of the anger, mount some sort of campaign against him and if you win, great, but if you don’t, just find the next traitor to go after. The 2014 primaries are almost over, and when they are, and we get past November, the tea party will turn its focus to the presidential campaign and the 2016 House and Senate primaries. The tea party isn’t going to miss Chris McDaniel. He did his job, but now it’s over.