By this point the applause was pretty weak. The Republicans respond with the last-ditch move that has worked so well in vaudeville history: a cute kid. One of the young volunteers with Generation Joshua, an evangelical activist team, takes the mic to talk about all the work she was doing. I find a space to stand, next to some college-age Generation Joshua kids who had covered themselves in Concerned Women for America and Romney-Ryan stickers.
“Each of these stickers symbolizes a call that one of our volunteers made today,” explains Ryan McDonald, an 18-year-old student from Patrick Henry College. One of his partners had plastered the stickers over his eyes and his mouth; photographers couldn’t get enough of them. As we talk, I learn that Mandel has lost. “When the margin’s that close, you just know that you fought as hard as you could,” he says.
The screens along the broad side of the ballroom turn into Mandel logos. To kill time, I walk to the back of the party area, a room where party number-crunchers keep loading and reloading local data. I accidentally break the news of the Mandel loss to Kevin Shook, a lawyer who had worked against the Democrats’ lawsuit that extended early voting. But then, the party is beckoned back into the ballroom, for another “victory” announcement.
“Steve Stivers has won the votes to let him return to Congress!” says Yost.
We listen to a speech by Stivers, a local congressman, and one by a successful candidate for state Supreme Court. It feels like we’re being pointed away from the TVs, which keep on showing lousy news for Romney and Democratic wins in Senate races. When I leave the ballroom again, I meet people talking about the ramifications of the Obama win. “I’m worried about our Constitutional right to bear arms,” says one Republican, who wears a tiny gold pin of a Glock to make the point. And then, finally, Mandel concedes, talking about the “peaceful transition of power” and how it doesn’t exist “in the Middle East, or in some countries in Africa.”
He finishes quickly, shakes a few hands, and exits. Priesse retakes the stage. “We were all here tonight to see Josh Mandel end his first bid for U.S. Senate,” he says. “We will be there when he wins.”
Priesse keeps talking, and the speech sounds perfectly inspiring, but the timing is horrible. Anyone who can see a TV screen can see Fox News call Ohio for Barack Obama. Small crowds gather around the corners of the room, ignoring Priesse completely. They wipe away tears. They deal with it.
“Because Ohio’s economy has turned around so well under our Republican governor, Obama got credit,” says 22-year-old volunteer Evan Mathini. “I’m optimistic about the future. If we want optimism, we’ve got Chris Christie.”
The Republican leaders are still here, but they have nothing to say. The lights start to go out. The party moves down to the first-floor bar. I ask a damp-eyed Yost what he thinks of Fox News’ on-air debate about whether the state should have been called so early. “If NBC and CNN call it, I’m confident that they’re right,” he says.
He leaves, and I rejoin the group at the bar. Earlier than they expected, they’re waiting for an end to the election and a Mitt Romney concession speech. The only spare seat is next to Darrell Poor, a black Democrat who happens to be driving the “party bus” from the rally tonight.
“You know what I think?” he asks. “I think Bill Clinton was right, and he made sense to people. We were in a mess for eight years. Nobody could’ve cleaned that up in four years.”
Poor explains the election to me without sounding overly enthused by Obama. After a night in the Republican orbit, it’s a helpful reminder of how the president actually won this state. Poor looks around the bar, as the Republicans buy each other cocktails and talk over the Fox News feed.
“I should take the bus to the Hilton, where the Democrats are,” he says. “That’s where the real party is.”