So what to do if and when Romney finally sews this up? The temptation is always there to drop out of the political process. But if conservatives are interested in advancing their cause from beneath Romney's banner -- as they will likely have to -- they must think beyond the presidential race and to the elections that will provide context to its result for the next four years.
The institution in greatest need of conservative influence right now is the U.S. Senate, the place where House conservatives' ideas for limiting government and expanding the economy have been going to die for the last 13 months. This year's Senate contests offer many opportunities to push the party and the nation to the right, and conservatives should pay attention.
The 2010 Senate election campaign had its share of conservative flops -- think especially of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada. But it also brought in a contingent of active, stalwart freshmen who have shown independence in their first year of service.
Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have added their conservative voices to those of longer-serving colleagues like Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
But they remain outnumbered. The challenge in 2012 will be to build up this group. And the opportunities are certainly there.
In Arizona, the iconoclastic and libertarian-leaning Rep. Jeff Flake appears to have consolidated establishment GOP support for his open-seat Senate bid.
In April 2004, I was surprised to run into Flake in Allentown, Pa. -- he was there supporting then-Rep. Toomey in his first bid against liberal Republican Sen. Arlen Specter.
It was one of many lonely fights in which history would later vindicate Flake. He made few friends in the House with his mid-2000s crusade against his colleagues' earmarks, but he eventually won that battle -- and the grudging respect of House leadership.
In Texas, the Democrats' best candidate dropped out of the open-seat U.S. Senate race before the filing deadline, so the action will be in the primary. Ted Cruz, the state's former solicitor general and a rising conservative star, is challenging the GOP establishment favorite, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
Cruz has climbed from nowhere to 18 percent support in the most recent poll. That leaves him another 18 points behind Dewhurst, who had led by 29 in September.
The trend for now favors Cruz, who can force a runoff by keeping Dewhurst under 50 percent. He could also have extra time to make his case to voters, thanks to a lawsuit delaying the state's primary elections.
In Wisconsin, where a Democratic seat is opening up, former Rep. Mark Neumann has more cash on hand now than the establishment GOP favorite, former Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Neumann joined Coburn and other conservatives during the 1990s in making life difficult for then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. He even refused to vote for Gingrich as speaker in 1997, voting "present" instead.
Thompson, on the other hand, has been somewhat equivocal in his support of Gov. Scott Walker, who faces a recall election this summer after daring to take on the state's public employee unions.
Conservatives should also watch the primaries in Missouri, Nebraska and North Dakota, and even long-shot challenges to longtime incumbents in Indiana and Utah.
So yes, conservatives have something to look forward to in 2012, even if the presidential field disappoints. If Obama is re-elected, a more conservative Senate will provide a better check on his ambitions. But it will be even more important if a Republican president is inaugurated in 2013.
A larger conservative core in the Senate may represent the best chance to avoid a repeat of the Bush years, in which Congress became the handmaiden for a Republican executive's big-government "conservatism."
If conservatives pick the right battles now, they can build a Senate that won't be bossed around by anyone.
David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.