This year's congressional majorities were built on the victories of center-right candidates, not the bomb-throwers who disrupted their party's leadership over the past two years. Of the 16 House Republicans who picked up seats for the party, 11 of them represent districts President Obama carried in 2012. And the freshman Senate class may be filled with conservatives, but ones who have expressed willingness to work across party lines.
The next generation's pragmatism is no accident. Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and aided by outside groups, worked assiduously to intervene in primaries, ensuring that far-right candidates like Chris McDaniel and Milton Wolf didn't win nominations.
The biggest bellwethers in determining how unified the new Republican-controlled Senate will be are four newly elected conservative stalwarts: Sens.-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Three were endorsed by the antitax Club for Growth, while a fourth was a Sarah Palin favorite. But all of them had strong support from the establishment, too, and Republican leaders expect they will be team players in the new Senate.
Add North Carolina's Thom Tillis—a former legislative leader who has expressed interest in chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee—and Colorado's Cory Gardner, who called on the GOP to govern with "maturity" in a Sunday show appearance last week, to the mix of incoming senators who are eager to govern, not obstruct. In sum, most are unlikely to become Ted Cruz acolytes and cause problems for McConnell.
"All of them ran because they want the Senate to be a functioning institution. They're not looking for crisis moments as leverage points," said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to McConnell. "This is a pretty unified bunch."
That's not to say the new wave isn't conservative, but there's a huge distinction between being conservative and being uncompromising. All of these GOP senators-elect have an interest in policy, and already showcased governing aptitude. Cotton, Sullivan, and Ernst (all military veterans) could join the party's group of foreign policy hawks, led by Sens. McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte. Sasse, a policy wonk, could team up with Sen. Mike Lee on proposing Obamacare alternatives.
Gardner, who made inroads with Hispanics in his election, could be a point person on immigration reform if the Senate tackles the issue. Shelley Moore Capito, the first Republican elected to the Senate from West Virginia since 1956, is likely to take up energy issues as part of her portfolio. These aren't Republican nihilists at all.
In the House, GOP critics have highlighted the far-right positions by a handful of new members, like Georgia's Jody Hice, Wisconsin's Glenn Grothman, and Alabama's Gary Palmer. But the more significant development is that, with at least 12 more Republicans in the conference—a number that could reach 15 after recounts—Boehner now has significantly more wiggle room to manage his caucus, even with some defections from the party's right flank. In the new Congress, he will be able to afford about 30 GOP defections and still pass legislation through the lower chamber.