WASHINGTON – The most damaging consequence of the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump for president is that it denied that role to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
It’s not that Cruz would have beaten Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But if Cruz had been the GOP standard bearer, it would have answered a question that will vex the party for the next four years.
After Trump falls to Clinton, social conservatives will say to party leadership, such as it is: You did it again. You nominated someone who is not a true believer, and the party paid the price at the polls.
Beginning on Nov. 9, they will argue that it’s their turn in 2020. They will lift up Cruz, or maybe Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, to lead the party into the battle to deny Clinton a second term.
If it hadn’t been for Trump, this fundamental question about the Republican Party could have been answered this year: Is it most effective when it situates itself on the far-right of the political spectrum or when it occupies the center-right?
A Cruz loss to Clinton this year would have meant that the GOP centrists could have assumed control of the party, guiding it to a place where bipartisan governance is elevated rather than repudiated, where economic and budget issues are prioritized and where middle- and working-class problems are addressed.
Instead, as the far-right asserts its influence, it could mean an endless loop of House investigations about Clinton’s email problems and Senate GOP refusal to consider her Supreme Court nominees.
Two Hoosiers could play important roles in determining the direction of the party.
In a few weeks, Gov. Mike Pence will be out of a job and will have plenty of time to devote to politics, which he seems to enjoy much more than actual governing or else he wouldn’t have been so quick to give up his gubernatorial seat to become Trump’s running mate.
Perhaps Pence has bolstered his reputation among Republicans by being the grounded yin to Trump’s volatile, offensive yang. His acolytes will assert that he heroically held the party together. On the other hand, does the most competent sailor on the Titanic bridge get to steer another ship?
Pence will have to choose whether to join Cruz in seeking political nihilism in Washington - grinding the governance gears to a halt if the GOP doesn’t get its way - or to offer a more expansive vision of the party.
Another Hoosier who could be in the middle of things is Rep. Todd Young, if he defeats Evan Bayh for the seat of retiring Sen. Dan Coats.
In the Senate, Young would have to decide whether he wants to get things done, such as approve budgets and Supreme Court nominees, or endlessly fight with Democrats in a bubble of denial that the rival party has taken over the chamber.
The earnest Young embraces the substance of Congress and the “policy entrepreneur” approach that House Speaker Paul Ryan coined when he was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, a panel on which Young serves. At his core, Young is a lawmaker who wants to make Capitol Hill work, rather than burn it down.
It’s probably not apparent from the harshly negative campaigns that Young and Bayh have waged that each can be thoughtful and independent of their parties’ extremes.
Bayh voted in favor of both President Obama’s health-care reform plan and the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. But that hardly means he’s a darling of the left.
In fact, if Bayh defeats Young, he’ll likely face more attacks. This time, they’ll be from Senate liberals, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who believe Bayh is too cozy with Wall Street and, like Young, will use his work for a hedge fund as a cudgel. They don’t want him to re-join the Senate Banking Committee.
As Young might find out, Bayh’s relatively pro-business moderation is one of the traits that makes him hard to beat in Indiana.
Bayh would clearly be a Clinton ally in the Senate. But Young could be, too. Based on her performance as a senator, Clinton has the ability to work across the aisle - and is likely more skilled at it than Obama.
The question is whether Republicans will give her a chance to work with them. A Senate newcomer like Young will have to determine whether he’s more motivated to governor or to obstruct. It will be a tough choice that could vary by issue.
But as he decides each time, he will help shape what his party is to become.

Schoff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.