Is the tea party running out of steam?

In an interview, Henry Barbour says Mississippi Republicans hadn’t experienced the divisions of other state parties – until now. And he’s frustrated by outside groups from Washington trying, as he sees it, to divide conservatives in Mississippi for their own political gain.

“My view is, Club for Growth has got to go get a scalp from somebody so they can raise money next year,” Mr. Barbour says.

Still, Barbour acknowledges that tea partyers are a force. He estimates they make up about a third of the state GOP electorate, and so McDaniel would need another 15 percent of “regular Republicans” to win.

If McDaniel pulls it off, Barbour says, it’s a 50-50 race in the general election against likely Democratic nominee Travis Childers, a former congressman. If Mr. Childers were to win, that would set back Republicans’ drive to retake the Senate.

McDaniel rejects the idea that he could cost his party the seat. Mississippi is solid red, end of story. And after the stumbles of past GOP Senate candidates – remember Todd “legitimate rape” Akin of Missouri? – McDaniel is on notice to watch his words and actions. Though he hadn’t counted on that old radio recording coming back to haunt him.

In Kentucky, Matt Bevin, the tea party-backed challenger to Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, recently spoke at a rally to support cockfighting, which is illegal. Mr. Bevin called his participation a misunderstanding – it was a “states’ rights rally,” his campaign said – but the damage was done. Bevin’s already-struggling campaign is sinking further.

Other tea party challenges to incumbent senators have either already failed (Texas) or are in trouble. Physician Milton Wolf’s threat to Sen. Pat Roberts (R) in Kansas suffered a blow in February when he was found to have posted graphic X-ray images to his Facebook page in 2010. Dr. Wolf apologized.

McDaniel skirted controversy in early April after his name appeared on a flier for a Firearm Freedom Day event in May that included a vendor selling “white pride” merchandise. McDaniel’s campaign says he never agreed to go. His name was removed from the flier, as was the vendor’s.

But the episode – and the more recent surfacing of the old radio comments – threatened to revive discussion of race and the tea party. Charges of racism, centered in “birtherism” and a rejection of President Obama’s legitimacy, have dogged the movement from its start. As the tea party becomes entrenched as a wing of the Republican Party, any image problems become the GOP’s problem.

The Republican establishment has been fighting back. Last November in the primary for a special House election in Alabama, mainstream favorite Republican Bradley Byrne beat a tea partyer who said Obama was born in Kenya. The US Chamber of Commerce, outside groups, and GOP congressional leaders supported Mr. Byrne with a flood of money and ads. Byrne won the primary, but only by five points.

Christian Science Monitor