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The tea party’s embrace of martyrdom

Hiroo Onoda, the last imperial Japanese soldier to surrender after World War II, hid in a jungle in the Philippines for 29 years, refusing to believe that the war was over. He finally turned himself in, wearing his sword, cap and patched uniform, in 1974.

Onoda died this year at age 91, but his passion for lost causes lives on — in the person of Chris McDaniel, a failed Senate candidate in Mississippi.

McDaniel, a tea party darling, lost a GOP primary runoff on June 24 to incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran but McDaniel gave an election-night speech with no concession. “There is something a bit unusual about a Republican primary that’s decided by liberal Democrats,” he declared, vowing that he was “not done fighting.”

When a preliminary tally showed that Cochran had won by 6,693 votes, or two percentage points, McDaniel called the vote “a sham” and alleged “thousands of voting irregularities and a stolen election.” Instead of providing evidence, he offered a $1,000 bounty to people who could find proof.

Finally, on Monday, the state Republican Party certified Cochran’s victory, by 7,667 votes. That same day, McDaniel’s campaign demanded an entirely new vote, and he sent out a fundraising appeal saying he was challenging the results because Cochran “used leftist tactics to steal the runoff election by soliciting illegal votes from liberal Democrats.”

One pictures McDaniel emerging from Mississippi’s Black Creek Wilderness 29 years from now, his suit muddy and his Don’t-Tread-on-Me flag shredded by alligators, finally conceding to Cochran, who will then be 105 years old and preparing to run for his 12th six-year term.

Imperial Japan taught its soldiers that death was preferable to surrender. The tea party’s code is similar: Stand firm, regardless of the odds of success or the consequences of failure. I’ve argued before that the struggle between the Republican establishment and the tea party is no longer about ideology — establishment figures have mostly co-opted tea party views — but about temperament.

It has become the amiable vs. the angry, the civil vs. the uncivil, a conservatism of the head vs. a conservatism of the spleen. The division now is between those who would govern and those who would sooner burn the whole place to the ground — and, in this struggle, McDaniel carries a torch.

As the economy continues its slow recovery, the ranks of the angry are shrinking, but there remains a sizable and outspoken minority that listens to conservative talk radio and embraces martyrdom. It should come as no surprise that McDaniel has been joined in his against-all-odds quest by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the architect of last year’s government shutdown. Cruz, on conservative host Mark Levin’s radio show, called the Mississippi runoff “appalling” and condemned the “conduct of the Washington, D.C., machine.” (Cruz, as vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is part of that Washington machine, but he, like McDaniel, recognizes that his interests are in keeping faith with the tea party.)

McDaniel, a state senator, had a background as a bomb-thrower. As a radio host, he had blamed gun violence on “hip-hop” culture and spoke of Mexican women as “mamacitas.” During the campaign, he more than once had to distance himself from white-supremacist supporters. Also, an image of Cochran’s wife, in a nursing home suffering from dementia, appeared in an online video created by a pro-McDaniel blogger. Four men were charged, and one later died in an apparent suicide. McDaniel’s campaign denied involvement.

After the runoff, in which Cochran’s campaign had successfully encouraged African-Americans to vote for him, McDaniel accused Cochran of “race baiting” and “vote buying.” An unidentified person crashed a Cochran campaign conference call with reporters, saying: “If black people were harvesting cotton, why do you think it’s OK to harvest their votes?” McDaniel disavowed that sentiment but continued to claim Cochran “stole” the election with “fraud.”

McDaniel’s campaign suggests there could be thousands of illegal ballots cast by people who also voted in the June 3 Democratic primary. But legal odds are against McDaniel, because his campaign didn’t contest those votes on Election Day, and because it would be nearly impossible to prove all those people voted for Cochran.

So why does McDaniel persist with a scorched-earth campaign that will damage the party and set a new standard for sore losing? Maybe he’s thinking all will be forgotten by the time he gives his concession speech. In 2043.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. (c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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