The sober but boring truth about the runoff election Mississippi's Republican Senate primary is that it probably doesn't matter very much. The dynamics of a runoff probably favor challenger Chris McDaniel over incumbent Thad Cochran, and McDaniel—a former conservative talk radio host with neo-Confederate ties and a history of making racially tinged remarks—is the kind of candidate who could pop off and say something disqualifying. It bears the hallmarks of the 2012 Senate race in Indiana, where Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party's candidate, defeated incumbent Richard Lugar only to bloviate about rape and pregnancy and lose to dark horse Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Democrats even have a credible candidate in Mississippi—former Representative Travis Childers. But while Childers has Donnelly's strengths, he doesn't have Donnelly's luck. 2012 was a presidential election year. And Indiana is not the deep South.
That's how a guy who joked about catcalling Mexican "mamacita[s]" and vowed to stop paying taxes if the government issued slavery reparations stands a decent shot of becoming a U.S. Senator.
I say that won't matter only insofar as McDaniel will be a junior Senator, who won't vote much, if at all differently than Cochran would have.
But it matters quite a bit as a reflection of the American right, and as a check against the growing narrative that Republicans have sloughed off their "Tea Party" problem. I've written skeptically of the idea that the GOP's victories over "Tea Party" candidates this primary season are particularly meaningful. If the trick to beating "Tea Party" candidates is to nominate better-polished hardliners and throw tons of money at them, then the "Tea Party" hasn't been beaten so much as the revanchist faction of the American right has been subsumed into the Republican party.
In other words, Tea Party-branded conservative advocacy groups are a minor problem compared to the bigger problem of the Republican primary electorate. McDaniel's victory merely suggests that Republicans have solved their smaller problem in places like Kentucky, but will need to turn further rightward to solve it in still-redder states. A mild mannered old guy like Cochran just didn't have it in him.
I suppose it counts for something that the National Republican Senatorial Committee will only have to concern itself with one compromised Senate race, rather than three, and only in the reddest of states where they probably don't have to watch their backs so closely.
But it won't be to the party's credit that its disposition toward the Mississippi Senate race will be "I sure hope McDaniel can keep a lid on all that nasty stuff for the next five months."
Republicans and movement conservatives take great umbrage at any suggestion that the party's electoral coalition includes a troublingly influential faction of resentful white reactionaries. They may often lie dormant, but McDaniel's likely victory is their latest clinical presentation. And if McDaniel prevails in the runoff as expected, the Republican party will continue cry foul anytime a liberal makes this observation, while spending as much money as needed to get him elected.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.