It’s not difficult to think up a few scenarios that lead to a GOP resurgence quicker than most people think. The Democrats could over-reach, pushing an agenda that’s far more liberal than the bulk of the electorate. The present economic crisis could get substantially worse and eventually do what bad economies do—hurt the party in power. An international crisis could be mishandled by the new administration, reviving fears that the Democrats can’t be relied on to keep the country safe.

For Republicans, it’s comforting to come up with any scenario that has the country looking kindly on them again. But to stay encouraged, they have to ignore a scenario that is just as likely to happen, and that could keep them wandering in the wilderness for a long time to come.

Here’s the best way to encapsulate this GOP worst case: The Republicans show that they’d rather be right than elected, while the Democrats show they’d rather be elected than left.

Already, there’s warfare within Republican ranks between strong ideological conservatives and a dwindling enclave of moderates. The conservatives blame the past two electoral disasters on ideological impurity. The party has to stand for traditional conservative values such as small government and low taxes while also pushing hard its agenda on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. The moderates, being moderates, don’t think in terms of ideology but in terms of winning over the great middle of the electorate. Don’t permanently write off great swaths of the country, like the northeast, the west coast and, potentially, chunks of the Midwest.

The reality is, the conservatives hold all the cards and their push for a stronger ideological brand will likely prevail.

That means either moderates will be correct in thinking this is a recipe for more election defeats—Republicans would rather be right than elected—or the conservatives will be right that the electorate will get fed up with Democratic liberalism.

That’s where things can get pretty scary for Republicans. The formula for winning back power is not geared so much toward what they can do (and how much can a minority party do, realistically?) as what the Democrats might do to themselves. It’s waiting for the team on offense to fumble.

The frightening prospect for Republicans is that the smooth, mistake-free Obama campaign will turn into the smooth, pragmatic Obama administration—that the Democrats will decide that they’d rather be elected than left. Yes, Obama may give in to interest groups on the left—and, perhaps, his own policy inclinations—and take the Democrats off a cliff. But early signs aren’t pointing that way.

The names being bandied about for key administration positions are pretty mainstream—a fact that has only the liberal blogosphere upset at this point. Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as his Chief of Staff (probably the second most powerful job in Washington), and while everyone has fixed on his sharp-elbowed partisanship, too few have noticed that the president-elect chose the architect of the Democratic strategy to recruit more moderate and even conservative candidates in various congressional districts around the country. To the extent that the last two election cycles brought the Democratic party as a whole closer to the middle, it’s thanks to Emanuel.

Then there is the way Obama has handled himself since the election. He has been cautious in his pronouncements, whether it’s about the economy or foreign policy challenges like Iran. On 60 Minutes last night, he talked about wanting to get past ideology and just do what is right—whether that means borrowing from FDR’s playbook or from Ronald Reagan’s. In other words, he is sounding like a man who knows that winning over the middle is not only the key to electoral triumphs but to governing effectively.

If Obama’s early moves and rhetoric do foretell a pragmatic presidency, then Republicans could cede the middle to Democrats for a long time to come. And that is truly the GOP’s nightmare scenario.

Bill Beaman is editor-in-chief at Politics magazine. wbeaman@politicsmagazine.com