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By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau

COLUMBUS, Miss. — He’s just the kind of candidate the tea party likes: deeply conservative, an outsider, and a challenge to the Washington establishment.

Yet Chris McDaniel rarely utters the words “Tea Party” as he campaigns against Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., for a primary runoff next Tuesday for the Republican Senate nomination.

“What you see here is so much larger than the Tea Party. We are conservatives, constitutional conservatives,” McDaniel said. “If you look at the people who have stepped in to endorse us, they come from every area of conservative thought, not just the tea party.”

Indeed, just five years after it burst onto the national political scene as a grass-roots force, the Tea Party is fading as a useful brand.

After rising up in protests against President Barack Obama in 2009, the Tea Party helped elect 87 new members to the House of Representatives in 2010. Members formed a Tea Party caucus in the House. The Tea Party started giving a formal response to the president’s State of the Union address, alongside the Republican response.

At its peak in 2010, 61 percent of Republicans supported the tea party, according to Gallup. Today, that’s plunged to 41 percent, and among all Americans there’s 22 percent support.

So far, most of the Tea Party challenges to incumbents and establishment favorites this year have failed.

The candidate who’s often cited as the most successful tea party candidate is Virginia’s David Brat. But Brat, who upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary, got his boost from conservative talk-show hosts and the website, not national Tea Party groups.

And the same night Cantor fell, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) beat his Republican nomination rivals in South Carolina, including a tea party hopeful, in a landslide.

Jenny Beth Martin, the president of one group, Tea Party Patriots, said her movement remained strong. While its support number is lower, she noted that “it’s higher than Congress.”

The brand’s problem, she said, isn’t unusual for an insurgent movement. “You get attacked when you do well,” she said. “We have not just Democrats attacking us, but a lot of Republicans.”

The Tea Party Express took a longer-term view. “The basic theme is change by insurgents,” co-founder Sal Russo said. “You’re going to have bumps.”

No doubt about that, and thanks to this year’s woes, Mississippi looms as one of the Tea Party’s last best 2014 hopes to topple a powerful senator. But during three days of McDaniel appearances last week, the only time the words “Tea Party” were apparent was outside Newk’s Eatery in Starkville, where college student William Mancer stood outside a McDaniel rally with a sign that said “Tea Party Wacko.” He was protesting the movement.

The Tea Party is following a familiar pattern in American political history. A movement springs to life, upsets some establishment figures and the major political parties and well-funded outside groups embrace and co-opt its ideas.

The Tea Party became a victim of its own disdain for top-down structure. Several groups claim the name, and none has a single well-known national figure to act as spokesman.

“There’s no official clearinghouse. You can be anything you want and say, ‘I’m with the Tea Party,’ and no one is going to correct you,” said Adam Brandon, the executive vice president of the conservative lobbying group FreedomWorks.

Two groups — the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, the Tea Party Patriots’ political action committee _ are trying hard to have some say in the Mississippi race.

The express plans a four-city bus tour, starting Friday evening. Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund workers aim to knock on 8,000 doors each day until Tuesday and make thousands of phone calls.

Cochran uses such groups as foils, telling an audience to applause Monday in Meridian that “enough is enough” with the groups.

Like other establishment candidates this year, Cochran tried to paint the Tea Party and others in that camp as extreme and dangerous. Such candidates recall how, in 2010 and 2012, the Tea Party sometimes embraced candidates viewed as extremists or oddballs in states where the GOP had been favored to win.

Instead, Democrats beat Republican Senate nominees and Tea Party favorites such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell (“I am not a witch”), Missouri’s Todd Akin (“legitimate rape”) and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock (even life that begins because of rape is “something God intended to happen”).

The Tea Party candidates have also faded because mainstream Republicans learned to go along with some of their ideas. Tea Party positions are often now the party establishment positions — fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act, for example.

Adopting those views has helped establishment favorites bury Tea pPrty challengers. Senators such as Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and South Carolina’s Graham had no trouble winning their recent primaries.

In Mississippi, McDaniel has gained momentum with the Tea Party’s slash-the-budget mantra. Just don’t say he’s a Tea Party guy. He says it’s not a stigma, that he likes some of their ideas, but he also notes he was never a member.

Chances are that won’t offend a lot of people. A lot of Mississippi Republicans don’t see the need for the Tea Party anymore, and frankly they don’t have the time. Some chapters remain active: In Tupelo, meetings draw about 20 to 30 people twice a month.
More common appears to be Columbus. A few years ago, its tea party meetings drew 150 people. Call up the group’s website today, and there’s a meeting announcement — for Sept. 20, 2011.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

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