Long before the first key race was called for the Democrats on Tuesday, the Republican campaign establishment in Washington was in a bunkerlike, somber state.
At the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters building in the shadow of the Capitol, a handful of reporters had camped out Tuesday night at tables set up in the lobby, but no Republican leaders were to be found. After requests from the neglected press, early in the evening NRSC chairwoman Sen. Elizabeth Dole emerged from a bank of elevators for a brief chat with reporters in an empty conference room near the lobby, populated with little more than a half-dozen forlorn cheese plates laid out for the press on a few tables. The surrounding chairs were empty.
There wasn't going to be any party at those tables, Dole confirmed. When asked why, she motioned to a plate of smoked salmon and announced with what seemed like feigned spunk: "Party! Let's have a party!" When the clutch of four reporters surrounding her on the plush carpet failed to respond with Animal House enthusiasm, Dole turned serious. "I think we are focused on what we are doing right now," she explained about the lack of festivities. "There is plenty of time for big events."
Those GOP parties will have to wait. In fact, the closest thing to a Republican bash on election night in Washington was a victory party planned for Virginia Rep. Tom Davis -- at 8 p.m. at the Fairfax City Fire Department across the river in Northern Virginia. Inside the city on election night it was clear early on that the GOP was expecting a stiff rebuke from voters, despite weeks of rosy predictions from the White House.
Even hours before it was clear the Democrats had won the House, Dole was dodgy about predicting anything that could be considered a success for GOP prospects in that chamber. "Well, the House?" she said. "We'll see how things work out." When asked about whether corruption on Capitol Hill might have swayed voters away from the GOP, Dole appeared to take an early, intraparty potshot at her colleagues in the House. "Obviously, we need to clean up the House," Dole said, but insisted corruption is "a bipartisan problem that needs a bipartisan solution." She said nothing about the Senate.
Above her head hung a 2-foot-wide, framed photograph of seven top Republican leaders in the Senate, including Republican Conference chairman Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Within minutes, Santorum's face appeared on a television set up for the press in the lobby and a Fox News talking head called the race for Santorum's opponent, Bob Casey.
And on the other side of the Capitol from Dole, the scene at the shared headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee wasn't just glum, it was desolate. The Republicans had set up a small stable of folding tables in the lobby of their building. A half-dozen reporters crowded around laptops, watching a television that had been propped up on a windowsill. A discarded cardboard box, half-full of unused pamphlets extolling the virtues of Virginia Sen. George Allen, kept a door propped open. The press was left with little more than a soda machine in the basement. "Is there a coke machine, or any way there is caffeine in this building?" one reporter asked the security guard sitting at the front desk. The reporter then speculated aloud as to why the GOP had made it so hard for the press to get substance or color from their party on election night. "You get the feeling they don't really want us here, don't you?"
Meanwhile, Democrats in Washington had invited the press to an "Election Night Watch Party" at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. Hosted by Democrats from the House and Senate, the blowout started at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and was slated to run until 3 a.m. "We really care about taking our country back!" Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair, told a roaring crowd of cheering Democrats in a ballroom gala as the news broke that Democrats had victories in Senate seats from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Well over 1,000 Democrats, most under 30 years of age, were partying at open bars in two separate ballrooms. A bank of two dozen cameras faced a stage, waiting for Democratic luminaries to report the latest news. Two giant screens displayed the most recent election results, at times sending the crowd into ecstatic screams.
Back at RNC headquarters, chairman Ken Mehlman had spent the previous days telling the press about the prowess of the GOP's muscular get-out-the-vote machine. By late this afternoon, Mehlman's office had released a transcript of the GOP leader on "The Rush Limbaugh Show," suggesting that the Democrats might be stealing the election. "One thing I can tell you is this is part of the Democratic playbook," Mehlman said about voter fraud. "And in fact, if you look, Rush, at the whole country, we're seeing more problems on behalf of Democrats than any of the alleged problems on behalf of Republicans."
But by 9 p.m. on election night, Mehlman was on TV talking about reconciliation with the Democrats and using the b-word. "There are areas we can work in on a bipartisan basis," Mehlman told Fox News. And Mehlman said there was a bright side to what was happening on the television screen in front of him as disappointing results rolled in. Those results, he said, would allow the GOP to wake up the day after Election Day and take a tough, long "look in the mirror."
Hardly the tone of a man getting ready to party.