To the victors go the spoils (or in this case an overflowing in-box that requires immediate attention). To the conquered goes the job of picking up the pieces. And for the Republican Party, there are a whole lot of slivers left from their shattered majority.
The splits within the party had grown so large by the end of the presidential campaign that it was hardly newsworthy anymore to report on the numbers of moderate Republicans who were openly endorsing the Democratic candidate. Conservatives, who more or less completed their takeover of the GOP during the 1990s found their numbers dwindling on Election Day and face an uncertain future, to put it lightly.
Even within the normally reliable base of the party there are tensions. As the New York Times points out, "neoconservative defense hawks are pitted against isolationists, libertarian antitax brigades resist the values-driven politics of social conservatives, and the party's intellectuals operate at a growing remove from the base."
Conservatives may struggle to win without broadening their appeal and returning people like Colin Powell back into the fold but the Republican Party wouldn't be able to exist at all without that core base of social and fiscal conservatives who have been essential to national politics since Ronald Reagan's heyday.
Splits in the Republican Party were evident during the primary campaign for the nomination where those conservative lacked a clear champion. Mitt Romney tried to win their loyalty but there was always a suspicion among evangelicals that they were being courted out of political expediency. Rudy Giuliani was a heck of a cop but not an inspirational moral example. Mike Huckabee held the hearts of social conservatives but fiscal hawks worried that he wasn't one of them. John McCain, despised by some prominent movement leaders for various transgressions nevertheless became the default choice and won the nomination.
It's ironic that the candidate who, in the 2000 campaign, called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" may have given that very element of the party their biggest boost in decades with his selection of Sarah Palin. 2008 was always going to be McCain's last shot at the White House which is one reason his VP selection was crucial because it would elevate that person to the very top of the GOP heap.
In Palin, movement conservatives found a champion not only on core beliefs like abortion and religion but in tone as well. Anti-establishment and aggressive in her attacks on the Democratic ticket, Palin raised far more energy on the trail than the man at the top of the ticket, even if there was a downside to her newness to national politics.
When all the inside bickering is done (and it's gotten ugly already, with McCain sources telling Newsweek magazine that Palin's shopping spree was even more that first thought, and describing it as the "Wasilla Hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast-to-coast"), the Alaska governor is almost certain to become a voice to be reckoned with for a long, long time should she so choose.
If Ted Stevens manages to win re-election, and it appears he might as the counting continues in the state, Palin could well have a decision to make soon. The senate could expel Stevens, who was found guilty of lying to federal prosecutors just days before the election, and facing that, the longtime senator could decide to resign his seat instead. That could set up a special election to fill that seat.
Palin would be a favorite to win, but would coming to Washington be the best course if she has designs on running for higher office in 2012? It would certainly give her some Washington experience and could help polish her style and knowledge of the issues of the day. But it could also take away from what has helped he vault into a national figure – her outsider status. If she wants to be president, staying home as a governor and finding ways to expand her role and reach from there may be just as effective as heading to DC, where many Republicans are unlikely to greet her warmly.
Palin has already been a target for blame by many prominent Republican voices. But in a splintered party, whoever has the loyalty and support from the biggest faction is going to wield a lot of power and, at the moment at least, that appears to be Palin. Where she, and the party, go from her will have a big impact on the next presidential election.