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Meet The Real Next Senate Majority Leader: Ted Cruz

AP Photo / Manuel Balce Ceneta

The Kentucky Republican achieved his lifelong dream on Tuesday night in a massive victory for his party, and is positioned to move into Sen. Harry Reid's ornate suite in the Capitol when the next Congress convenes on Jan. 3.

But it is likely to be a short honeymoon.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the influential tea party firebrand, is poised to make life very difficult for the old-school Kentuckian by harnessing the power of the GOP base's rightward drift to wage fierce battles with President Barack Obama.

Cruz telegraphed his strategy in a post-election interview Tuesday night on Fox News, calling on Republicans to do whatever it takes to repeal Obamacare and and prevent Obama's upcoming executive actions on immigration.

"The two biggest issues nationwide were, number one, stopping the train wreck that is Obamacare; number two, stopping the president from illegally granting amnesty," Cruz said.

He also appeared on CNN and declined to voice support for McConnell as majority leader, calling that "a decision for the conference to answer next week."

The Class of 2014 features many younger conservatives who owe their rise to the GOP's right flank, including Iowa's Joni Ernst, Arkansas's Tom Cotton and Nebraska's Ben Sasse. Along with the other conservatives who won Senate seats in 2010 and 2012, they'll be a robust bloc, with considerable influence.

"Cruz is gonna be using his national base to put relentless pressure on McConnell," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

"I've never seen a guy so despised by a vast majority of his caucus — they hate Cruz. They see Cruz as completely out for himself. But let's face it if he's out there inciting the base, and talk radio guys and blog people ... that's going to be difficult for them," Ornstein said.

In two short years as a senator, Cruz has proven very influential, most notably when he led Republicans into a government shutdown in 2013 against the better judgment of Boehner and McConnell. Though he has since calmed somewhat, he appears ready to reemerge from his shell.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and GOP lawmakers, from left, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, face reporters after a Republican caucus meeting, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

"Senator McConnell has a whole bunch of members of his caucus that like to freelance and aren't really in the habit of listening to their leadership," said Jim Manley, a former senior aide for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). "Further compounding his headache is he's got three Republicans who will be running for president, none of whom care about the Senate as a whole and probably care very little about their colleagues."

Pushing McConnell further to the right will be the presidential ambitions of Cruz, who intends to catapult to the 2016 Republican ticket on the strength of the conservative base. That could in turn propel other presidential hopefuls, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), rightward, and complicate McConnell's hopes of keeping his conference united.

"It's like herding cats," Manley said. "It's very difficult."

McConnell's other balancing act includes meeting the needs of the freshman GOP senators facing reelection in 2016, a much friendlier year for Democrats, in states that Obama won twice — including Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, WIsconsin's Ron Johnson, Ohio's Rob Portman, and Illinois's Mark Kirk. Democrats will also take a stab at North Carolinian Richard Burr's seat. These senators will be wary of aligning themselves with the Cruz wing.

On top of that, McConnell still has to contend with a 60-vote threshold for legislation if Democrats choose to exercise the filibuster.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), McConnell's loyal deputy, told CNN on Tuesday afternoon that the party has enough room for a diverse set of ideas.

"Our party's big enough for the whole spectrum of approaches we have from the right to the left," he said. He also downplayed the prospects of repealing Obamacare, saying, "I believe it's more likely we will have a step by step approach to dismantling it" and replacing it.

A more modest approach won't sit well with the Cruz wing.

The night before the election, conservative advocate Erick Erickson channeled the disillusionment of the tea party base with the Republican establishment. In a piece for Politico magazine, he took them to task for having "spent several years badmouthing Sen. Ted Cruz" yet seeking his help when they need it.

His message: the McConnell wing is indebted to the Cruz wing.

"When the polls close on Tuesday, Republicans will not so much have won as Democrats will have lost," Erickson wrote. "And so the message is plain: The GOP celebration will be brief. When the new Republican Congress convenes next year, tries to lead, and looks over its shoulder, there won’t be many conservatives following."