It’s going to be hard for Republicans to restrain their enthusiasm after their breathtaking victories on Nov. 4 in the Senate, the House and state capitols across the country. But they should. If we’ve learned anything about American politics over the past several years, it is that the electorate is far friendlier to Democrats in presidential years than it is in midterms, which is why the GOP triumph in 2010 was quickly followed by deep disappointment in 2012. At the risk of taking away the punch bowl too soon, GOP victories in states like Colorado and North Carolina were narrower than they should have been, considering that the electorates in those states will be younger and less white in two years, which will make them less hospitable terrain. Ed Gillespie’s near victory in Virginia was a welcome surprise. Yet Virginia is a state that Republicans ought to have in the bag in presidential years, and they don’t.
To win the White House, republicans will need a presidential candidate who understands how the country has changed since the Bush era and who offers a welcome contrast to the aging Clinton dynasty. But who will it be?
If Scott Walker had failed in his bid for re-election as governor of Wisconsin, he’d have instantly become a historical footnote. Instead, conservatives cheered as he won his third statewide election in four years. The case for Walker is that he’s demonstrated that he can fight and win against entrenched liberal interest groups and that his unpretentious, everyman style will play well in the all-important upper Midwest. The case against him is that in a dangerous world, the former county executive doesn’t have the experience or the know-how to be Commander in Chief.
Good news for Walker is, alas, bad news for Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor once considered the most formidable 2016 GOP contender. The Christie brand has lost much of its luster since the trumped-up Bridgegate imbroglio, though the governor is still a great talent. Christie’s pitch is not all that different from Walker’s: Both men have tangled with powerful public-worker unions. Both are unapologetic conservatives who’ve won in blue states. The difference is that Christie is seen–unfairly–as closer to President Obama than any Republican should be, and that perception will be difficult to overcome.
Something similar is true of Jeb Bush, the would-be white knight of the GOP establishment. Had the midterms been a disaster for the GOP, the case for Jeb would have been much stronger: once again, Republicans would need to turn to the Bush family to unite a party in disarray. The GOP’s strong showing instead suggests that a new generation is ready to take the helm.
One candidate who definitely got a boost from the midterms is Rand Paul, the junior Senator from Kentucky, who played a crucial role in sparing Republican leader Mitch McConnell from an ignominious defeat. Though McConnell opposed Paul in the 2010 GOP Senate primary, they’ve developed a strong working relationship as Paul has lent his Establishment colleague some of the young libertarian firebrands who fueled his come-from-behind victory. McConnell ran one of the most social-media-savvy campaigns in the country, a preview of what’s to come from a Paul presidential campaign. Rand Paul often takes positions–on mass surveillance, on drone strikes, on the war on drugs, on the size of government–at odds with those of mainstream Republicans. Yet he’s also developed an ability to soften some of his more hard-edged stances for public consumption. Moreover, GOP successes in gubernatorial races in deep-blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland lend credence to his argument that the GOP needs to welcome socially liberal voters.
And finally we have Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, junior Senators from Texas and Florida, respectively. Though Cruz and Rubio both came to office as Tea Party stalwarts, they’ve developed very different profiles. Cruz presents himself as the uncompromising defender of small-government conservatism who is willing to risk a federal shutdown or default in defense of his ironclad principles. Rubio, in contrast, is emerging as the candidate of middle-class aspiration, with a focus on reforming failing government institutions to tackle wage stagnation and the barriers to upward mobility.
Watch these two young Senators to see which path the GOP will take.n
Salam is the executive editor of National Review
This appears in the November 17, 2014 issue of TIME.