So where to from here? Two things to keep an eye on: First is the budget battle rerun due in January – to what extent is the Ted Cruz-led conservative cabal able to drive the party into another vain, self-destructive shutdown? Early signs give reason for skepticism. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, has ruled out another shutdown. "Ted Cruz went out and led a parade that he said would be a success … and then he walked down the alley like that character at the end of ‘Animal House,' marched the whole band into the wall – and then he ran out and had a TV interview," says conservative activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, who adds that the next time Cruz has an idea, Republicans are either "going to throw something big at him" or otherwise politely dismiss him.
A second focus point will be the 2014 primaries. McConnell faces a serious challenge and a slew of other incumbents have primaries as well. "Rest well tonight, for soon we must focus on important House and Senate races," former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook recently. "Let's start with Kentucky – which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi – from sea to shining sea we will not give up." The latter references were to GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham, Lamar Alexander and Thad Cochrane – all incumbents facing challengers. It's early to say whether any are credible, says Duffy, "but for a collection of safe incumbents, that's a lot of primaries." If the primaries produce few or any upsets, it could mean the tea party's influence has receded.
"Republicans are only one election and one candidate away from resurrection in 2016," says Ayres. Time will tell.