What exactly is Chris McDaniel doing? Beats me.

Imagine for a second this alternate universe.  In the wake of his June 24 runoff loss to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, state Sen. Chris McDaniel concedes the contest. "I don't agree with Thad Cochran on every issue but the people of Mississippi have spoken and I respect their decision," McDaniel tells a disappointed crowd on runoff night.

In that universe, McDaniel leaves most Mississippi Republicans with a positive mental image of him. Yes, it was a hard-fought race but McDaniel ultimately did the right thing -- uniting behind the GOP nominee.  When another major statewide office comes open -- say the governor's race or one of the state's U.S. Senate seats -- McDaniel probably starts close to the front of the line of Republican candidates.


Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel delivers a concession speech in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in this June 24, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman/Files

Now, come back to the real world where McDaniel didn't do any of those things. Instead he has undertaken a somewhat confusing effort to kind-of, sort-of contest the runoff results -- under the premise (I think) that there were significant irregularities in the voting that could more than make up for the nearly 8,000 votes by which he lost to Cochran.

"What we are doing right now is a full examination of election materials," said state Sen. Michael Watson in a press conference Wednesday. He made clear that "this is not a challenge right now" although he was introduced as the head of the "Chris McDaniel challenge" and McDaniel's campaign lawyer, Mitch Tyner, said in that same press conference to expect a formal challenge to the election results within 10 days.

Neither Tyner nor Watson would provide the evidence they had allegedly compiled showing widespread irregularities, insisting they would so all at once at some future date.  McDaniel didn't attend the event --  a campaign spokeswoman told the Jackson Clarion Ledger "that's not public" when a reporter asked about the candidate's whereabouts. McDaniel is, however, beginning a three-day "Truth and Justice" bus tour across the state today. (Worth noting: I reached out to McDaniel's campaign pollster on Wednesday; he said he hadn't spoken to the campaign since the night of the runoff.)

All of which raises a simple yet profound question: What exactly is Chris McDaniel doing?

"This is the question everyone has been asking," Sam Hall, the Clarion Ledger's digital editor, told me in an email Wednesday night. "On one level, it’s like McDaniel is in a sort of prolonged shock. When he came within a half of a percentage point of winning [the primary], just about everyone — myself included — said it was all but a certainty that Chris McDaniel was going to win. Then to lose, after all the work and the mudslinging and the being so close, that’s got to be a real emotional blow."

Hall added that there remains "genuine anger coming from McDaniel and his camp over the way Cochran won this race," meaning -- as analysis of the vote has shown -- that the incumbent's victory was due in large part to votes from African Americans, a traditionally Democratic constituency.  There is a "real ideological argument that Democrats should not have played any kind of role in deciding the Republican nominee," said Hall. "McDaniel seems to sincerely believe the election was stolen from him because Cochran recruited Democrats to vote in the runoff."

Here's the problem for McDaniel. In Mississippi, you don't register by party.  So, anyone can vote in either party primary. And, if you don't vote in a primary, you are eligible to vote in a runoff. That fact is what Cochran exploited in the runoff. Because the Mississippi Democratic primary -- particularly for Senate -- wasn't a high-profile affair (only 84,00 votes were cast as compared to more than 313,000 in the GOP primary) there were plenty of black voters who took a pass, and, therefore, were eligible under state law to vote in the GOP runoff.

McDaniel's campaign  alleges -- without any proof made public yet -- that many of the people who voted for Cochran in the Republican runoff had, in fact, voted three weeks earlier in the Democratic primary. If so, that is a violation of the law. But, if McDaniel is simply unhappy that Cochran took advantage of the rules in a way he thinks is unfair, well then welcome to the world of big-time politics. There's a reason the phrase "politics ain't beanbag" exists.

The question which no one knows the answer to is what evidence McDaniel actually has to back up his claims of widespread irregularities. (We don't know because they refuse to share it.) "Those close to him continue to tell me that they just haven’t found enough contested votes to make a case for widespread fraud or for malfeasance in the conduction of the election," said Hall. "Several people close to him have started trying to talk him down from a prolonged challenge he is likely to lose because it will kill his political future."

Um, yes. Remember that McDaniel is only 42 years old.  One of the key lessons any successful politician learns early on is that you have to know when it's better to live to fight another day. McDaniel's high profile fight against the results is the opposite of what he should be doing if he wants to preserve a political future in the state.

Is there a chance that McDaniel has found a series of smoking guns regarding the runoff vote that he will reveal at some point in the future and, in so doing, invalidate the results? I mean, I suppose so since I can't rule anything in or out given that McDaniel has presented a total of zero evidence of these allegedly broad-scale irregularities. But, there's a much larger chance that this whole challenge-but-it-isn't-a-challenge-just-yet fizzles into nothing, leaving McDaniel looking like the sorest of losers. And no one likes (or votes for) a sore loser.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Philip Bump · July 17