Correction to This Article
This article about election-night parties misidentified a John Mellencamp song played at a party in Charleston, W.Va., for Gov. Joe Manchin III, who was elected to the Senate. The song is called "Pink Houses," not "Ain't That America."
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Election 2010: A walk on the mild side of victory (or defeat) parties

On Tuesday night, race results sent ballrooms across the country into happy tizzies or downward spirals.

A rumor begins to circulate that the beer has run out at the party for Feingold challenger Ron Johnson, upstate in Oshkosh. Small consolation, especially when the Feingold victory-or-defeat party officially becomes the defeat party just before 11 p.m.

"In the words of Bob Dylan," says Feingold from the stage, " 'My heart is light and free/I've got nothing but affection for those who sailed with me.' "

Quoting a song called "Mississippi" in a concession speech from Wisconsin: Is Feingold hinting that he might carpetbag southward for an eventual comeback?

He fist-pumps the air. "FORWARD!" he bellows.

Forward to Seattle. TV reporters tell their cameras that the race between Patty Murray and Republican Dino Rossi is too close to call. MSNBC analyst Ed Schultz appears to be having a muted stroke in Las Vegas on one of the projection screens. The ballroom cheers each time the local news shows the same pair of percentages: 51 for Murray, 49 for Rossi.

51, 49: "YAY!"

51, 49: "WOOH!"

51, 49: "PATTY!"

The port city's ruddy mayor, Mike McGinn, sips seltzer with lime, alone, as the din swirls around him in the 9 o'clock hour.

"I will say if you're looking for a good party in Seattle, heading to an election party should not be your first choice," McGinn advises.

'The truth is . . . '

But if we'd gone to an actual party, then we would've missed a special lesson from a Murray supporter named Buddy Foley, 65, a pianist and handler-wrangler who won't say what he handles or wrangles (besides the Stella Artois in his hand).

"Let me tell you how America works," says Foley, who wears a plaid shirt, a mallard-print tie and a woodpecker feather in his fedora. "You have Democrats voting for Democrats and Republicans voting for Republicans and then you have these people down the middle who are -- " he lowers his voice " -- undereducated, and are trying to make a living and do the best for their children, but they're so busy that they realize two weeks before an election that, 'Gee, I better start watching TV to get some news,' and by then the richest [expletives] in America have shoved their [expletiving] money into attack ads and that's what this middle group of people sees, and they vote accordingly and they're the ones who steer the country."

Election-night parties bring out the theorists. Another one's extemporizing in Bowling Green:

"The truth is, the Congress does not run the United States," says Don Freeman, 63, standing in the parking lot outside the Paul party next to a minivan ornamented with bald-eagle sculptures.

So who does?

A shadowy international group, Freeman says, which meets in private and pays people to keep its name out of the news.

At 10 p.m. Pacific time, former California governor Pete Wilson takes the stage at the Whitman party to delay the inevitable concession speech. A campaign staffer hurries a bottle of red wine upstairs, presumably to Whitman's bunker. Another staffer, in a blue dress and leopard-print shoes, grips a white binder and asks a supporter how he's doing.

"I've been better," he says.

She leans in and whispers, "Back in the VIP room after this, the bar is still open. Pass it on."

Oh, the VIP room. Would that this portal deliver us from the humdrum stratum of these parties? In the name of truth, we ride an elevator 47 floors up the Westin Seattle and lo and behold: The Patty Murray VIPs are ensconced in the presidential suite. There's a dazzling view of downtown, plush furniture encircling a television, relaxed campaign staffers in good spirits and an abundance of brownies.

We are escorted out of the presidential suite, before reaching a brownie.

Darkness falls on America, party by party. Whitman's balloons never drop at the Hilton in California. Eventually all that's left at the Seattle Westin are bottles of blush. The tea partiers in Kentucky and Florida have an early bedtime. And after Feingold's concession speech, the mood in the Wisconsin ballroom turns funereal. Four young women wearing staff badges drape their arms around one another. They sob.

"H-h-he was the only senator I really felt cared about people," one says.

Can they share a little more about their feelings?

"W-w-we're interns," one says apologetically. "And we're not allowed to talk to anyone."

"Actually, we're not interns anymore," says another, defeat dawning on her face. "I've got to go find Courtney."

They scatter.

The lights come up.

All the cheese is gone.

Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold in Bowling Green, Ky.; Annie Gowen in Coral Gables, Fla.; Monica Hesse in Middleton, Wis.; Jason Horowitz in Los Angeles; Nia-Malika Henderson in Chicago; and Ed O'Keefe in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.


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