It's been a long dry spell for the Republican Party. But with the scent of victory in the air, Tuesday was a night for celebration in Washington, DC—a night for GOP operatives and supporters to put the party back in Grand Old Party.
And party they did, in the offices of Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, just blocks from a White House where the Democratic president was in the process of getting an electoral spanking.
A few paces from the reception desk-turned-open-bar, a mini scrum surrounded Norquist, the affable conservative whose group is devoted to getting Republicans to renounce anything that smells even faintly of a tax increase. It's just before 8 pm, as election results are trickling in, and the conversation swings from how Norquist prepared for an appearance on The Colbert Report to his trip to Burning Man this August. A tall, exotic woman sidles up to the guardian of Republican anti-tax orthodoxy.
"You know my girlfriend, Samah?" Norquist asks the group, bourbon in hand. "She's also my wife, thankfully," he adds, introducing Samah to David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society, a research group dedicated to the study of Ayn Rand, and Aaron Houston of Weedmaps.
"He's going to help us get to the Playboy Mansion," Norquist, founder and head of Americans For Tax Reform, tells his wife, referring to Houston. (It turns out Norquist may have actually found a tax he likes: On legalized marijuana.) Then he returns to the subject of Burning Man.
"I meant to ask you about that by the way," Houston remarks. Kelley is more stunned. "You were at Burning Man? Holy shit. Excuse me while I digest this," he chuckles. An Atlas Society scholar, Ed Hudgins, strolls up to revel in Joe Biden's latest gaffe.
It's pretty common for mid-term elections to penalize the President's party. But Republicans this year get extra gold stars for pivoting from the disastrous government shutdown that the GOP forced through Congress last year. Since then, though, the party has surged as Obama stumbled from crisis to crisis, his approval rating plummeting. Conservative outside spending groups pumped massive amounts of money into key Senate races (although, to be fair, so did labor unions and Democratic Super PACS). And the GOP also seemed to have made strides overcoming the so-called digital divide that has benefited Democrats in previous elections. In the meantime, Obama sat out most of the campaigns, sidelined by candidates who weren't interested in his help.
On Wednesday, after Republicans had completed their midterm rout, the famously withdrawn president admitted did not deny a reporter's assertion that he'd only met privately one or two times with incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but said that he "would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon" with the Republican leader. (The liquor lobby seized the opportunity, tweeting out an offer to host a Bourbon Summit.)
But on Tuesday, Republicans were enjoying the bourbon without Obama.
A few miles away from Norquist's party, in the bullpen style offices of the Republican digital campaign firm Targeted Victory in Alexandria, Zac Moffat surveyed a roomful of twentysomething Republicans watching election coverage on several wide screens and chowing down on barbeque. "Some of these guys haven't had a big win for awhile, so hopefully they'll get to enjoy that," said Moffat, the digital director for Mitt Romney's failed 2012 campaign and a co-founder of Targeted Victory. The firm, which has a staff of about 100, worked with several key campaigns and Super PACS this cycle, taking in a chunk of the record-breaking $3.67 billion spent during the 2014 election cycle.
The first cheers went up just after 7 pm, as networks declared McConnell the winner in Kentucky's Senate race. A few minutes later, the room cheered again at conservative columnist George Will's appearance on Fox News. But this was just the warmup. The Republican kiddie corps was really waiting to see if Republicans would take control of the Senate.
Under big college banners and a skull-and-crossbone flag, this young crew had worked for a range of successful Republican Senate candidates: Joni Ernst in Iowa, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, as well as Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Governor-elect Greg Abbott of Texas. They also consulted for major conservative outside spending groups like American Crossroads, America Rising, and the US Chamber of Commerce, as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the quarterback of the Senate playing field.
On Election Day, alone, Moffat said, Targeted Victory put Republican-backed messages in front of at least 15 million voters. Ever since the total collapse of the GOP's campaign technology in 2012, Moffatt and his team have been trying to dispel the idea of Democrats' digital superiority. "That's the myth until we win today," Moffat told me, as I left the office. "And then everybody will say we were the smartest. The winner gets to make the rules."
In downtown Washington, Norquist's party was off to a slow start as everyone waited for election results to come in. "I would feel better if I heard more cheering," the host quipped. Around 8:30, when the networks announced that the GOP had one a contested Senate race in Arkansas, the room relaxed. "Tom Cotton. That's big!" one excited, bearded Republican exclaimed. Cotton, a Republican congressman, had defeated incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor. Between announcements, the conservative revelers hit up the Diageo-sponsored open bar where the drink menu included items like the "Brownback" Derby (after Kansas Governor Sam Brownback) and the Lois Lerner ("actually we don't have it") and snacked on finger food. As is typical in Washington, there were no utensils, to comply with congressional ethics rules.
"Why are you taking notes?" a fresh-faced young lady asked me alongside the buffet table. An event planner at the Christian Legal Society ("Seeking Justice with the Love of God"), she tells her name is Linda Grijalba and she just moved to Washington from Kentucky a month ago, over the objections of her parents. "My parents were like, 'You can't go to D.C. That's where all the crazy people are.' They thought they would try to turn me into Hillary Clinton."
Across the room, the only guy in a white cowboy hat turns out to be a retired police detective from Lansing, Michigan, and another pot activist, who spent six months riding a horse around America calling for the legalization of weed. A co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Howard "Cowboy" Wooldridge tells me that most cops are privately in favor of ending prohibition, although most won't say so until they retire. Ordering "just one more" Red Stripe, he says he visits the offices of all 540 members of Congress every year and explains to them that after all the money and resources spent on the Drug War, "drugs are cheaper, stronger and more available in every part of the country" than they ever have been. A young blonde from the office of a conservative Texas congressman remembers Wooldridge from his rounds and bounds up to say hello, and then he resumes telling me the argument he makes to elected officials.
"We should be tracking pedophiles instead of a green plant. Cops want to be chasing bad guys and Willie Nelson's not a bad guy." Wooldridge says. A little later, I he thrusts his hands in the air in celebration of Guam voting to legalize medical marijuana. "The trend toward liberalization is a wave," he says.
There were numerous parties across town sponsored by lobbyists who didn't want press around, including one at the W Hotel, near the White House, and a hot ticket event that took over DC's Union Station. At Norquist's party, I meet Wilson Farrar, who has just come from a party at the W Hotel, where she says she took her first-ever selfie, with Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus. Farrar is in from Portola Valley, in Northern California, where she said she became Republican in the hopes of running against Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. "I wrote a children's book instead," she says, called I Am Super Scooter, the Invincible Horse, about her horse. She excitedly pulls out her iPhone to show me Scooter-cam, a live feed of her horse in his stall.
A go-to Republican in Washington, Norquist hosts the renowned invitation-only Wednesday Meeting of some 150 conservatives, and is also known for forcing GOP candidates to sign a no-taxes pledge, and embarrasses them if they don't. He's also ubiquitous, always willing to stop by a party or give quote. After awhile, he slipped away from his own Election Night event to do some TV hits, including for Katie Couric's new online show for Yahoo!, broadcast from the basement of a Capitol Hill bar.
All told, it was certainly a big night for Republicans. As one conservative at Norquist's party, consultant Jim Lucier, put it: "The top-down macro numbers are converging with the bottom-up, race-by-race forecasts. That is a good thing."
But Hudgins, of the Ayn Rand society and a former staffer to the House GOP leadership, warns of trouble ahead for his party. While victory on Tuesday was great, "the real challenge is what Republicans do next. They're in a three-way civil war." McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner will have to help referee, he says, between the GOP Establishment, the "extreme social conservatives who want to limit liberty," and a growing wing of the party that is more libertarian. If the new majority doesn't work hard to bridge these gaps, Hudgins adds, "the GOP faces a demographic death spiral." But for one night, at least, they could celebrate.