Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is hardly on the cutting edge of reform, nor is he known for any particular policy expertise, but he is generally well-liked back home and adept at getting his state’s share of federal spending. He has run a lackluster campaign. Even sympathetic Republicans tell me his campaign is lacking energy. “He needs to wake up” is the refrain I hear over and over again from Republican insiders working for groups trying to assist him. His biggest advantage may be former governor Haley Barbour, who is campaigning and fundraising for him. So is this a great chance for the tea party to knock off a stodgy incumbent? Well, not so fast.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., arrives at the Senate chamber for a vote, Wednesday, May 14, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Cochran, 76, in Congress since 1973, is in the re-election battle of his career as the Senate primary in Mississippi is a battleground between the establishment Republican Party and tea party conservatives. (AP Photo) Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) arrives at the Senate chamber for a vote on May 14 on Capitol Hill. (Associated Press)

Challenger Chris McDaniel can’t seem to get out of his own way. He expressed indifference to Hurricane Katrina aid, which is vital to his state. (He later had to walk back his comments.) His past radio show tapes have surfaced, capturing his tasteless barbs on immigration and reparations for slavery. And now a whisper campaign against Cochran involving an alleged relationship with an aide has blown up in McDaniel’s face.

The Post reports: “The race has been roiled over the past week by a bizarre incident in which a pro-McDaniel blogger was arrested in connection with taking an illicit photo of Cochran’s bedridden wife, Rose, who has dementia and lives in a nursing home.” McDaniel then stumbled badly in a radio appearance, letting on that he knew about the video in April but denying any involvement in the taping of it. Then things got really weird:

Conservative blogger Clayton Kelly posted an online video containing the unauthorized picture and later took it down, but he was arrested last week and charged with a felony. On Thursday, authorities also arrested Mark Mayfield, vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party and a McDaniel supporter, in connection with the case. Although McDaniel’s campaign insists that it had nothing to do with the incident, Cochran’s team tried to create doubts by releasing a timeline of statements from McDaniel and his aides and showing how they changed their story.

Far from damaging Cochran, the episode has made him the object of sympathy and has made McDaniel look as though he is involved in a dirty trick involving his opponent’s invalid wife.

And this was the best candidate the right-wing, Beltway-based groups could come up with? Had they searched for a more responsible and competent candidate, a Mississippi version of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse or a Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Cochran might be on his last legs. By rallying behind the buffoonish McDaniel and dumping millions into the race, they’ve actually done Cochran a favor. (Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund chipped in more than a million each, with other groups ponying up millions more.) If McDaniel wins, there will be little reason to cheer, and if Cochran does, it will simply have been a missed opportunity to trade up in quality.

Conservatives may be understandably frustrated that right-wing groups are spending millions to replace a mediocre incumbent with a problematic challenger in a deep-red state. This is a very expensive fight in a small sandbox that will not influence control of  Senate. Had that money been used to pummel Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, Michelle Nunn in Georgia or vulnerable Democratic incumbents such as Mark Pryor (Ark.), right-wing groups could later claim credit if the Senate flipped to the GOP. (Why not go after Democrats for ugly personal smears of Monica Wehby or use money to make Rep. Bruce Braley’s trial lawyer image stick?) Instead, a GOP majority would be achieved despite their antics.

The tea party groups have been indiscriminate in their endorsements and irresponsible with their donors’ money. What have they done for the cause of conservatism? They have spent millions to oust solid conservatives, backed highly flawed challengers in deep-red states (Milton Wolf in Kansas, for example) and cheered on the shutdown that sullied the GOP’s image. Their anti-government message and vision of impending doom for the United States are only slightly less attractive than their candidates. (The positive reform agenda is coming from people such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), not the cranks funded by outfits such as the Senate Conservatives Fund or the Madison Project.)

Established conservative organizations and mainstream conservatives around the country are embracing likable candidates and developing a reform conservative message. The right-wing groups need to get their act together or their money machine may grind to a halt. If it does, they will have no one to blame but themselves.