With the failure of the GOP’s government shutdown/debt default gambit this fall, and then the explosion of irrational exuberance among conservatives about Obamacare’s challenges and the president’s lower approval ratings since then, it’s a bit unclear exactly where conservative GOP primary challengers to incumbent senators are going to take their differentiating stand. But the biggest challenger of them all, Matt Bevin of Kentucky, has dropped a pretty large hint, per this Alexandra Jaffe report in The Hill:

In an interview with The Hill, Republican Matt Bevin (Ky.) reiterated his disappointment with congressional GOP leaders, especially their condemnation of outside conservative groups, and said he was “strongly, strongly in favor of doing anything possible” to repeal the healthcare law….

“I do not think we should increase the debt ceiling without significant concessions, and if one of them is the repeal of ObamaCare, then terrific,” Bevin said.

Congress raised the debt ceiling as part of the deal to end the government shutdown in October. The increase runs until February, though it is expected that the Treasury Department could use extraordinary measures so Congress would not need to raise it again until March.

Bevin rejected the premise that demanding concessions for raising the debt ceiling could lead to a default on the debt.

“There is no threat of default. We have more than 10 times the amount of money needed to service our loans,” he said.

Asked what other concessions he wants to see during the debt-limit fight, Bevin said “real, targeted, specific, significant” spending cuts, adding that there are no “sacred cows” in the budget.

But he did say that Social Security and Medicare should be off-limits, because “we should honor our promises” to retirees.

Interesting, eh? Bevin is embracing the discredited but still Tea-popular idea that a debt default is the fiscal equivalent of a short haircut, which means it should be threatened regularly. But he’s not willing to identify a specific hostage to take–even as he endorses specific hostage-taking with no “sacred cows”–and he goes out of his way to disclaim interest in the most common Republican demand, “entitlement reforms” that touch on Social Security and Medicare.

This dancing around by Bevin could indicate conservative uncertainty about what to do next, or could mean a determination to go mainly after entitlements that benefit those people (e.g., Medicaid and SNAP), or even a sort of “counter-revolution for the hell of it” posture of acting destructively before identifying policy goals. But the common assumption that congressional Republicans wouldn’t dare play games with the debt limit again doesn’t strike me as all that well settled, particularly among all those would-be deal-makers in the Senate who are now facing well-funded challengers like Bevin.

UPDATE: Businessweek‘s Joshua Green notes all the GOP saber-rattling, and concludes it’s all empty noise. I don’t know, however, that the logic of avoiding another debt limit fight is the least bit binding on vote-crazed primary challengers like Bevin, and again, they have some leverage over the very Senate GOP leaders who will be needed to stop a debt default fight before it begins.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.