Republicans are drawing an odd lesson from Tuesday’s defeat: they weren’t conservative enough.

Conservatives abandoned their small-government principles, a growing consensus alleges, and got trounced as a result.

Now a fight is brewing inside Congress to claim the mantle of “reform” that supposedly elevated the GOP to power in 1994. Rep. Mike Pence, a devout Christian and former radio host from Indiana who heads the right-wing Republican Study Group, is challenging Rep. John Boehner for House Minority Leader.

“I believe we did not just lose our Majority, we lost our way,” Pence wrote in a letter outlining his candidacy. “I believe this happened to us because somewhere along the way we lost our willingness to fight for limited government, fiscal discipline, traditional values and reform.”

Pence has tried to portray Boehner as out of step with the new conservative caucus, while Boehner is quietly suggesting that Pence is too inexperienced to be effective. A third candidate for Minority Leader, Rep. Joe Barton, a crony of Big Oil who recently chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered a similarly full-throated defense of right-wing conservatism. “Republicans cannot simply be Democrats-lite,” Barton wrote.

Barton may swing a few votes, but the race is between Boehner and Pence, with Boehner the favorite. Pence may be extreme, but he’s also principled–and thus may be a tougher challenge for Nancy Pelosi. Boehner is a classic old-school pol who’ll probably be more likely to cut deals with the Democrats. Elections are scheduled for Friday. The new majority party will be watching closely.