Analysis: McDaniel risked label of sore loser by refusing to concede, but still built capital

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JACKSON, Mississippi — It's been nearly three months since Chris McDaniel lost the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Mississippi, and he still hasn't conceded. Now, it's worth considering whether McDaniel, a state senator tea party favorite from Jones County, is pursuing a long-term political strategy of winning by losing.

Certified results show six-term Sen. Thad Cochran defeated McDaniel by 7,667 votes in the June 24 primary runoff.

McDaniel is enmeshed in a legal battle trying to overturn Cochran's victory by claiming the runoff was tainted because Cochran reached out to voters who traditionally support Democrats. Mississippi doesn't register voters by party, and McDaniel's odds of success are slim, based on the substantial burden of proving his claim that the primary was so shoddily run that the results are invalid. McDaniel wants a judge to either declare him the victor or order a new runoff.

Facebook and Twitter remain abuzz with McDaniel supporters urging him to "Fight, Chris, fight." Some suggest his tea party supporters should break away from the Republican fold and form their own "McGOP."

McDaniel's never-surrender attitude is clearly wearing thin among many Mississippians, even some who say they voted for him. He might have torpedoed his own political future by making himself look like a sore loser.

On the other hand, McDaniel might be strengthening his political prospects by positioning himself as an advocate for conservatives who feel ignored by the Republican establishment. And that might provide momentum for McDaniel and his allies leading into 2015, when Mississippi elects a slate of statewide officials, from governor to agriculture commissioner.

McDaniel was backed by millions of dollars from outside groups that consider Cochran insufficiently conservative. However, neither McDaniel nor any other tea party-supported challenger can reasonably expect to receive that level of out-of-state financial support for a state government election in Mississippi, where Republicans hold seven of eight statewide offices and a majority in both legislative chambers. The big spending happened in the U.S. Senate race because groups such as FreedomWorks and Club for Growth saw a chance to affect federal policy. Both backed McDaniel.

McDaniel filed a lawsuit Aug. 14 challenging Cochran's victory in the primary. Cochran's attorneys argued McDaniel waited too long to file the lawsuit. They cited a Mississippi Supreme Court ruling from a 1959 election dispute which said state law specified a 20-day deadline for challenging results of a multicounty or statewide election.

Judge Hollis McGehee dismissed the lawsuit Aug. 29, ruling McDaniel waited too long to file. McDaniel appealed McGehee's ruling to the Mississippi Supreme Court, and justices will hear oral arguments from attorneys for McDaniel and Cochran's on Oct. 2 — one month and two days before the Nov. 4 general election.

Justices say they'll handle the appeal quickly, but state law allows them to order a new party primary runoff even after the general election.

There's no legal requirement for a losing candidate to make a concession speech, either on election night or at any other time. The process moves relentlessly forward, driven by deadlines to certify party primary results and prepare for the general election.

State officials have set a November Senate ballot that lists Cochran as the Republican nominee, former U.S. Rep. Travis Childers as the Democrat nominee and Shawn O'Hara as the Reform Party's candidate.

McDaniel is pushing the boundaries of the widely held belief that in politics, any kind of attention is better than no attention at all. But, here's his victory: People are still talking about him, for better or worse. And they wouldn't be doing that if he had conceded on election night or soon thereafter.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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