In one of the deepest-red states in an off-year election against a weak incumbent and lazy campaigner, the tea party forces spent millions of dollars — to get a tie. Tea partier Chris McDaniel barely edged ahead in the Mississippi GOP Senate primary and is headed for a runoff with Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). As I previously noted, Cochran has done little to deserve reelection, while challenger Chris McDaniel has done little to instill confidence. The concern that a McDaniel win could put in jeopardy a seat that might be the difference in control of the Senate is realistic and widespread.

This photo taken Feb. 20, 2014 shows Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., left, accompanied by friend and state Rep. Ray Rogers, R-Pearl, speaking at the city of Pearl's Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet in Pearl, Miss. Cochran is engaged in his toughest campaign in a generation. The former Appropriations Committee chairman faces a June 3 primary challenge from a two-term state lawmaker. Chris McDaniel riles up tea party voters by denouncing big federal spending and portraying the 76-year-old incumbent as a Washington insider who’s lost touch with folks back home. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), left, accompanied by state Rep. Ray Rogers, speaks in Pearl, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press)

The tea party we have seen this primary season is outmatched easily when it takes on mainstream, competent Republicans. It cannot win against such candidates even in extremely conservative venues such as the Idaho 2nd congressional district or the state of Kentucky. It can win with superbly qualified candidates who have mainstream appeal when the tea partiers jump on board with establishment Republicans. And it might win narrowly in ultra-conservative places when the incumbent lacks redeemable qualities. Maybe it should stick to the last two categories (e.g. Ben Sasse in Nebraska, Joni Ernst in Iowa and McDaniel in Mississippi) while steering clear of the first group (e.g. challenging Mitch McConnell or John Cornyn). And it certainly should be avoiding altogether those swing states in which far-right candidates will be clobbered in a general election (e.g. Colorado, Nevada, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri) — that is, places where it would damage the GOP and lose the potential to take a Senate majority.

That, however, makes for an awfully small tea party sandbox, one that does not justify raising tens of millions of dollars and spending lavishly on its Beltway operators. It certainly doesn’t make sense to allow the players in a two-by-four-inch sandbox to control the whole playground or to wreck the party for the sake of candidates in states already in the deep-red category. In other words, to shut down the government and damage capable Republicans in order to win the already Republican Mississippi but lose every blue and purple locale is a rotten bargain.

It also suggests a real problem for any tea party presidential candidate who lacks mainstream appeal, even in a primary. Before his eccentric views and penchant for hiring extreme aides were known, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) might win in Kentucky, but he has virtually no chance in a presidential race to get an electoral college majority. He is the GOP equivalent of Walter Mondale — or a modern-day Barry Goldwater.

The tea party and the extreme libertarian sect (who certainly overlap) have perpetrated a myth that if they are just ideologically extreme enough or if they don’t fully let on how extreme they are, then they can create waves of new Republicans. It strains credibility, however, to think that by pandering on a few issues they can pick up enough, say, college voters who still abhor right-wing views on gay rights, economics and the environment, to make up for the legions that those tea party candidates will lose elsewhere. These are not additive candidates who grow the party, but rather, people who are net losers and geographically limited in appeal.

In short, tea partiers can succeed in deep-red places running against cruddy establishment candidates, while establishment candidates with personal and political appeal can keep the base and win outside it. You really have to be in Fantasyland, or be a very cynical self-promoter, to think that the party should choose on a nationalized basis to follow the gang that can barely win in a Mississippi midterm election primary and not the party that can win Mississippi but also Florida, Ohio and Colorado.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.