Read Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.
"Thank you!" said Clark County Republican Party chairman Frank Ricotta. "Thank you for attending the Harry Reid retirement party."
The smallish crowd that had started walking in to one of the Venetian's many, many ballrooms reacted to this as smallish crowds tend to do. They cheered, and it echoed across the eight-chandelier space, between its two bars, and across a stage where conservative radio hosts were broadcasting live from, well, the Sharron Angle victory party. In every election there is a campaign that glows with the sure confidence of success, then loses. This was not going to be one of those campaigns.
It wasn't going to become one of those campaigns because Angle was the unofficial leader of the great trend of 2010. She was the "fringe" Republican, always written off, always bullied by the establishment, who had been adopted by a brand new political movement and stomped the establishment like a troublesome protester at a Rand Paul rally. She'd won her primary with a shoestring campaign. How could she not beat Harry Reid? A company called Political Connections was even selling a ready-made collectible tribute to the win—a framed photo of the victory party. A small palm card made the hard sell.
A Historic Evening, An Amazing Collectible
Available Here Tonight! Limited Edition of 250
Dudley Winn, one of 16 Republicans from Lubbock, Texas, who came up to campaign for Angle, walked the ballroom in a shirt patterned after the flag of his state. He wore one of the night's ubiquitous Angle victory buttons, and a rainbow-patterned button that said "Man Up, Harry Reid." The reference to Angle's jab at the majority leader in their only televised debate was missed by no one; an inventive salesman named Victor the Snakemann was offering "Man Up" shirts at his Web site. Winn came to Nevada, he said, because this was really the only election he cared about.
"You have no idea what it means to Texas if Angle wins!" he says. "This matters more than all the other races."
The polls close in Nevada three hours after most of the polls are closed on the East Coast. Before they close, the major networks announce that Republicans are going to win the House of Representatives. There are not enough people in the room to really make an impressive noise in response to this. But the word travels fast, and there are few people still doubting that Angle, who led Reid solidly in the final polls after their debate, will win. They talk about what she can do when she wins.
"The approach should be: No more compromise," says Mitchell Tracy, a Republican who made a longshot bid for a seat on the Clark County commission. (It was a long enough shot that he has skipped the campaign trail to show up here a bit early.) "Republicans always compromise. Democrats never do."
But all of this becomes moot, because Reid gets re-elected. The news is displayed on one of the ballroom's two giant screens at the exact moment that John Boehner is tearing up about the election that will make him Speaker of the House. The Republican victory bash in Nevada becomes one of the few miserable conservative fetes happening in America.
Why did it happen? Bob List, an RNC committeeman who was governor of the state 30 years ago, says that it's simple. Harry Reid's campaign skills are beyond the ability of mere mortals to comprehend them.
"He really did have the best get-out-the-vote operation we've ever seen here," says List. "It re-energized in the last five or seven days, whereas I think Angle peaked too early. I can't say anything she did wrong." He thinks about this for a second. "I suppose if I had to name something, it would be that she let Reid define her as 'crazy' in the six weeks after primary. Obviously, she isn't crazy, but obviously she never recovered."
There are other theories. An Angle volunteer named Ashkaan Koupa suggests that something went awry—illegally, maybe—because Reid had been losing in those polls. Mike Sachs suggests that Angle "never ran a positive campaign" and was bullied and mistreated by the Republican establishment. Winn suggests that Angle turned down the aid of "the 600 pound gorrilla" by refusing to hitch up her campaign, post-primary, to whoever the GOP told her told her to.
But in the space of hours, there has already been a notable shift in the way that Winn talks about the race. It used to be the most important election in the country. It's now just an element of a GOP sweep.
If this sounds like the self-justification of people who spent good money and hours of their time on a lousy victory party—well, it is and it isn't. It's hard to avoid the truth that they saved Reid by anointing Angle. According to exit polling, Reid won the election with a 45 percent approval rating. This is never supposed to happen. It would not have happened if Reid had not scared his best potential opponents from the field and had he not defined Angle as a kook who would wreck everything that Nevadans enjoyed.
But Democrats really did fail to do that in most other races. The coming days are going to be thick with intra-Republican recriminations about what the ardor and stupidity of Tea Partiers cost them—this seat, Delaware's U.S. Senate seat, possibly the race in Colorado. And Tea Partiers did make it harder for Republicans to win a couple of seats. They did this while building intense organizations in their own states and districts. Democrats tried to fight back all year by amplifying the craziest things that the Tea Partiers or their preferred candidates said. They did what Reid did to Angle. But Reid's election operations were focused and taut, prepped for a possible loss since early 2009.
Reid's victory speech plays early in the night, to a shrinking crowd. They're almost too bored to boo, until the speech starts to amuse them.
"There will still be too many foreclosure signs in too many front yards!" says Reid, lowering expectations for his next six years in office.
"What are you doing with my money, Harry Reid?" yells a heckler.
The image is cut off, and multiple successful Republicans are trundled onstage before Angle finally concedes the race. Her speech is a tribute to the Republicans who've done better than she has and gotten to Congress. She thanks her volunteers and donors because their time wasn't wasted, nor were the 80 percent of donations she got from out of state.
"They gave like the founding fathers gave. They gave with their fortunes, their lives, and their sacred honors!"
"Made in the USA!" yells one fan. The crowd is small enough that she hears the comment, opens up her smile a little more, and gets back to explaining why her loss was no symptom of a lost cause.
Video: Harry Reid wins re-election