By the time the polls started to close Tuesday night, there was zero tension among the Democrats milling about the returns-watching party at the Liaison Capitol Hill hotel. Staffers had seen the exit-poll numbers, they had heard the turnout reports, and they were feeling pretty Zen. Everyone assumed the status quo would hold. Dems would keep the Senate. Republicans would keep the House. A few seats would flip here and there. (Bye-bye, Sen. Scott Brown! Hello Sen. Elizabeth Warren!) But, hey: It could have been so much worse.
Senate Dems in particular were merry. Staffers were wandering around sharing exit polls and talking turnout. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Guy Cecil looked giddy when he came in to brief the media around 8:15.
Who could blame the man? As the polls were closing in Connecticut at 8, the networks reported that Chris Murphy had beaten Linda McMahon and the $43 million of her own WWE money that she’d sunk into her campaign (on top of the almost $50 million she spent on her last Senate campaign). Well before 9 o'clock, Massachusetts was called for Warren (now poised to be the new darling of the left), followed not too long after by Indiana for Joe Donnelly. Both races had been rough and scary, and everyone pretty much recognized that Donnelly had been saved by opponent Richard Mourdock’s electrifying views on rape.
House Dems weren’t quite so buoyant. Shortly before 9, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Whip Steny Hoyer, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel addressed the couple of hundred people milling about the ballroom, clutching their wineglasses and plates of nachos. Hoyer managed to muster the appropriate bravado, suggesting that his caucus would end the night back in the majority. Pelosi was subdued and looked more than a little distracted. Clearly, the thought of another term in the minority lacked a certain appeal.
As the night wore on, every so often cheers would erupt in the ballroom: when Ohio was called for Sherrod Brown, Missouri for Claire McCaskill, and so on.
The DSCC’s Cecil was back just before 10, giddier and twitchier and declaring himself so very, very “encouraged.” (Virginia was looking good, he said, though it was still too close to call.) And that was even before he learned from one of the assembled reporters that Wisconsin was being called for Tammy Baldwin—one of the evening’s nail-biters for Senate Dems.
Just after 10:30 (around the time Tim Kaine was first being projected to have won Virginia) I did a sweep of the event. Up front, the hotel bar and restaurant were packed. Inside the reception proper, the ballroom crowd was thinner if equally well lubricated. Party VIPs remained holed up in a private room next to the media filing center. At some point, Democratic leadership was supposed to address the crowd, though no one seemed quite sure when that would happen.
By 11 p.m., as the polls were closing on the West Coast, the party had cleared out even more. The Dems’ Senate majority was secure, and the presidency looked good. (Indeed, the race for called for Obama within the half hour.) I decided to head home and wait for the Montana Senate results from the comfort of my sofa. No one seemed to expect Jon Tester to pull it out, but it was no longer a make-or-break race.
On the way out, I passed a young guy with a beer in one hand, an infant strapped to his chest, and a big-ass grin on his face. That pretty much summed up the night for Dems.