If Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee chief John Cornyn were keeping score at home, they probably weren't too worried about Tuesday's Senate runoff in Texas. Either way, the seat was likely to remain in Republican hands. But conservatives had a pickup opportunity, and with Ted Cruz's victory they seized it.
The incumbent, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and the Rick Perry-endorsed establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, weren't exactly liberals. But they weren't boat-rocking government-cutters either. The Tea Party-backed Cruz promised he would be.
To put it another way, McConnell's numbers in his quest to gain a GOP majority were unchanged while Jim DeMint received reinforcements. As the Washington Post noted, "Cruz's primary win virtually ensures that DeMint will have another constitutional conservative ally in the upper chamber during the next Congress."
DeMint, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee have all been pressuring Senate Republicans from the right to get government spending under control. Wisconsin Tea Party favorite Ron Johnson, former Club for Growth head Pat Toomey, and Tom Coburn are frequent allies. Adding Cruz to their ranks gives them another vote, as well as an articulate spokesman for free markets and fiscal restraint.
More help may be on the way. Richard Mourdock beat six-term Indiana institution Richard Lugar in a Republican primary earlier this year. He has a better than even chance of winning in November. Mark Neumann, a staunchly conservative former congressman, has surged in at least one poll to a three-way tie with Tommy Thompson and Eric Hovde in the primary for what should be a competitive Senate race in Wisconsin.
The size of the DeMint-Paul caucus could matter regardless of who wins the White House this year. If Barack Obama is reelected despite $1 trillion deficits, 8 percent unemployment, and less than 2 percent economic growth, Republicans will be demoralized. Although some conservatives would surely fault Mitt Romney's moderation, many in the party would press for compromise with the president.
A significant bloc of Senate conservatives could make it impossible to wave the white flag. DeMint pressed Republicans to take no prisoners during the Obamacare debate. His cohort could stall any attempt to revive cap and trade, raise income tax rates, provide amnesty to illegal immigrants, or put gun control back on the national agenda.
If Romney wins, a group of uncompromising Senate conservatives could be even more important. They could prevent the frightening return of a zombie called big government conservatism. Under George W. Bush, some of the most conservative members of Congress voted to increase domestic discretionary spending and enlarge entitlements.
DeMint wasn't one of them. He was one of just 45 House members to vote against No Child Left Behind, which helped double the Department of Education. He also opposed the deficit-funded Medicare prescription drug benefit, although Republican leaders threatened to withhold financial support from his 2004 Senate campaign if he didn't back the Bush administration.
Mike Lee and Rand Paul are even more likely to balk at GOP government growth, while holding the leadership's feet to the fire on issues like Obamacare repeal. As Texas solicitor general, Cruz defied the Bush administration in the Medellin case, when the World Court wanted the Lone Star State to review the conviction of a convicted rapist and murderer on death row.
"Texas is too Republican a state to settle for anything less than a conservative leader," Cruz told me earlier this year.
It takes only a handful of senators to bottle up legislation. Similarly, just a few voices can influence the debate by urging the rest of the Senate Republican conference to the right. A President Romney could prove malleable in the face of such pressure. In a second Obama term, they could help drive 2016 Republican presidential aspirants to bolster their conservative credentials.
Before the primary, it was often pointed out that Cruz and Dewhurst would have had nearly identical Senate voting records. That may well be true. But when factoring in the cost of No Child Left Behind or Medicare Part D, small differences in how Republicans vote could come with a big price tag.
Republicans have a rough path ahead of them to 51 Senate votes. An effective limited government caucus within the party doesn't need to be that large. Such a group can become influential growing just one Ted Cruz at a time.
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