Is the GOP's Win in 2014 a Loss for 2016?

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) delivers his remarks at the morning plenary session of the Values Voter Summit in Washington September 26, 2014. Gary Cameron/Reuters

The Republican Party finally wrested control of the Senate from Democrats on Tuesday. Now comes their real challenge.

Will Republicans try to govern by working across the aisle? Or will they turn to investigations of the Obama White House and government shutdown-style brinkmanship to defund Obamacare? The answer will shape American politics for the next two years — and the 2016 presidential elections.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, known as the GOP's biggest bomb-thrower in the Senate, is already signaling that he will push the Senate Republicans to the right. In an interview with the Washington Post, "Cruz said the first order of business should be a series of hearings on President Obama, 'looking at the abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this administration.'" He also wants the GOP to "pursue every means possible to repeal Obamacare."

If Cruz is successful, that's a problem for Republicans. The Cruz approach excites the GOP base but alienates moderates. Pulling the party far to the right by trying to impeach Obama or continuing to focus on defunding Obamacare will hurt the Senate Republicans who are up for reelection in blue and purple states in 2016. Republicans looking to 2016 would rather see a GOP majority that works constructively to tackle priorities like immigration reform or tax reform.

In Focus

Midterm Election Photos: Winners and Losers

Candidates celebrate and commiserate as the results of the midterm elections came in Tuesday night.
Launch Slideshow 15 PHOTOS

"If [Republicans are] going to be a national party, they have to prove that they can govern, they have to prove that they can cooperate," former Obama adviser David Axelrod said on MSNBC the day before the election, speaking hypothetically about a Republican victory. "And that's anathema to a lot of their base. So they won the election in one day, and now they're going to have to turn around and say, 'Actually, compromise isn't that bad a thing.'"

"In 2016, you've got a lot of Republicans in blue states who are up who are gonna want to follow Ted Cruz over the cliff," he added.

But a constructive GOP majority is unlikely to materialize. As, Axelrod points out, Republicans weren't sent to Congress Tuesday to compromise. The incoming class of Republicans, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa, will be more conservative than the caucus is now. Ernst promised in her victory speech Tuesday night that "We are heading to Washington. And we are going to make 'em squeal!"

Meanwhile, like Cruz, the outside Tea Party apparatus is gearing up to push Republicans to the right. On Election Day, Heritage Action, the Tea Party-aligned outside group that punishes Republicans who don't take the most conservative votes, is already fund-raising off of the possibility that the new GOP majority won't be conservative enough. "All too often, politicians campaign on conservative principles but vote like liberals once in Washington -- growing big government, big debt, and big problems," an email from the group warned, before asking for donations.

Republicans won the battle Tuesday. Over the next two years, how they handle their new majority will determine if they can win the war.