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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."
Election 2010: A walk on the mild side of victory (or defeat) parties

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; C01

SEATTLE -- America the beautiful, the anxious, the tipsy. Land of the free chardonnay, home of the brave campaign staffer dancing alone, prematurely, as everyone else watches big-screen projections of Fox News and MSNBC, waiting to be told how to feel.

Polls close. Percentages tango. The country engages in its strangest pastime: the official election-night party.

Celebration or self-flagellation?

Too close to call.

Margin of error: plus or minus three Bud Lights.

No one does nervous anticipation, cautious optimism and polite lunacy better than the people who show up to these kinds of parties, which begin in the 7 o'clock hour as Election Day turns to Election Dusk, time zone by time zone.

The Democrats show up here, at the Westin hotel in downtown Seattle, and tell themselves they did all they could for Patty Murray, their incumbent and endangered senator. Then they order a $10 Seagram's and 7Up in case they didn't do enough. Tuesday evening the fourth-floor "grand ballroom" fills with tweed and tie-dye, elbow patches and men's scarfery, lady berets and union patches and brambly ponytails. And supporters who've already tranquilized their nerves with two dirty martinis.

Why come to an event like this, ma'am?

"I was having an affair with a politician who's probably in this room right now," says artist and Eastlake resident Michele Leal, brown eyes scanning the room. "Sometimes he'd bring cash and sometimes his credit card. And I was like, 'Is Washington state paying for this dinner?' "

She laughs, then pauses.

"But I like to learn from people, and there are people here I can learn from," she says eventually, sweeping her martini glass across the carpeted expanse, sloshing gin onto her shoes. "I need a sippy cup, I told Benjamin." She reels around to face a bow-tied bartender. "Benjamin! My sippy cup."

Let's teleport outta here. Come, party-hop across the continent. (There'll be some time travel, too.)

On our Marriott way

This land -- your land, my land -- needs to create both jobs and better party venues than hotel ballrooms, and better anthems than U2 songs.

Case study: the Russ Feingold victory-or-defeat party, which is sputtering to a start at 7:30 p.m. Central near Madison at -- wait for it -- the Marriott of Middleton, Wis.! The ballroom is empty, save for tables set with tiny bowls of grandma candy and a DJ cranking the pleading song "Tell Me Something Good."

The spread of food is a Midwestern killing field: four kinds of Wisconsin cheese (five, if you count the breaded and fried mozzarella sticks), plus a tub of ranch dip large enough to bathe a toddler. Someone asks a bartender if there's a special Feingold drink, and he says, "Yes. It's called the Feingold Wish. I give you an empty glass and you wish it was something else! Ha-ha!"

Moving eastward, back in time, to another dadgum Marriott ballroom, this one in Charleston, W.Va.: Joe Manchin, the governor-turned-Senate-hopeful, leads his opponent 52 to 45 percent as a duo named the Dueling Fiddlers take to the dance floor around 8 p.m. Eastern. They fiddle Lady Gaga. They fiddle Joan Jett. They fiddle "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which rouses the growing crowd into a full-throated singalong.

Dark and dusty, painted on the sky,

Misty taste of moonshine

Teardrops in my eye.

Alas, no moonshine at the bar. Just a house red, a house white and Bud Light. Supporters storm the buffet for seconds and thirds of carved top round of beef, buttery bread rolls and skewers of antipasti, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and salami slices.

"The polls are closed and folks are filing in," the DJ says over the hearty strumming of Mellencamp's "Ain't That America." "Grab yourself some food and have a good time."

A good time is hard to find one state over, in Kentucky, where you might expect some kind of bourbon-fueled orgy in the wake of Rand Paul's early victory in his Senate race. He takes the stage to AC/DC's "TNT."

"Tonight, there is a tea party tidal wave, and we're sending a message," Paul announces in the ballroom of the Bowling Green civic center.

A supporter shouts "Capitalism!" as one might shout " 'Free Bird'!"

Paul's father, Texas congressman Ron, appears via Skype and elicits the strongest cheer of the night when he suggests an audit of the Federal Reserve.

They're taking the country back and yet the tea partiers do not, apparently, party. The only evidence of playfulness: Some joker placed a campaign button of Paul's opponent, Jack Conway, in a urinal in the men's room.

Instead of raucous, boo-yah cheerleading, Paul supporters and tea partiers stand and listen and then talk seriously about the Fed. They cluster at the back of the ballroom in small groups, jawing about that pesky deficit.

"Hey, I'm 18," says Robert Cloar, a student at nearby Western Kentucky University. "And when I'm 35, I don't want there to be more debt than what there is now."

Buzz kill, dude.

To get the groove back, how about a trip to Miami, where Republican golden boy Marco Rubio has rocketed from unknown to senator-elect in no time? A peppy salsa band, lush banyan trees, the courtyard of the Biltmore Hotel lit like a Spanish cathedral, a gauzy sky filled with stars over Coral Gables . . . and yet . . . and yet . . . this victory party is dull as dirt.

Maybe this is because the senator-elect has ducked out just after 10 p.m., while he still had blue-and-white confetti in his hair. The place is getting emptier and emptier after his departure, leaving lingerers alone with their $7 Cokes and $12 glasses of wine. In protest, Hugo Garcia swings his wife around the lonely dance floor. Sweat soaks his tan shirt. His wife, Karla, dabs at her face. They're elated by Republican victories.

"I called and said, 'Where's the party?' " says Hugo, an exporter and Kendall resident originally from Nicaragua. "It's not so good, though. Nobody's dancing."

Ballroom blitz

Zoom! Back to the West Coast, where a riddle awaits: What does $139 million get you in California politics?

If it's Meg Whitman's money, a party at the Hilton in Universal City, Calif., and not much else.

At 8:01 p.m. Pacific, Fox News plays party pooper and calls the governor's race for Whitman's Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown. There is neither joy nor a concession in Ballroom D, where a balloon drop waits expectantly overhead and men in suits barnacle themselves to tables loaded with glasses of white wine. Bleachers full of TV reporters futz with their hair before going live.

It's a beautiful day, U2 insists.

Supporters gather in Ballroom A, the equivalent of steerage.

"We did it back it in June," said Deidre Bowen, a 43-year-old homemaker from Los Angeles, referring to Whitman's primary win, which was celebrated at the same hotel. Same threadbare carpeting. Same cocktail napkins. Different result, it seems.

The instructions in Ballroom A are simple, Bowen says: "Just cheer her on, no matter what. I don't know what we're expecting tonight. Either way, everyone worked so hard. And the money she spent on this campaign went right back into this state, when you think of it. So we all win. It all came back to us."

Everyone wins, even the losers. At Chicago's swanky Fairmont Hotel, a local Fox affiliate tickered the headline "Giannoulias Wins" even though the state treasurer was three points behind his opponent, Rep. Mark Kirk (R), in the Senate race.

"Let's have a round of applause for the congressman," Alexi Giannoulias says while conceding. "I think he will make a good senator."

"No!" a voice calls from the crowd. "He's a liar!"

"No, he's our senator," Giannoulias says.

And then the media's magical election predictor machine kicks into high gear, and the results stream live to every party in the nation, sending ballrooms of supporters into tizzies and downward spirals.

Christine O'Donnell: Not a witch, not a senator. Cheers erupt at Joe Manchin's victory party in West Virginia, where Journey and Bob Seger blast over the sound system.

Harry Reid fends off tea party darling Sharron Angle. The Seattle Westin whoops; the Bowling Green civic center sighs.

Republicans steal Democratic Senate seats in Arkansas, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The Marriot in Middleton sags with dread. At 10:30 p.m., there is still no sign of Feingold. In the hallway outside the ballroom, two male supporters have brainstormed an activity to pass the time.

They stop women and ask to see their "papers." They call the game "Arizona."

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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