A bit after 9 o'clock on Tuesday night, the chairman, chief of staff, and treasurer of the Republican National Committee made a pilgrimage up the road to a bar called Meridian Pint. That was where members of the faithful were gathering to celebrate Patrick Mara's run for a city council seat -- a seat it really looked like he could win.
"How's it look?" RNC Chairman Reince Priebus asked a happy Republican volunteer.
"It looks close," said the volunteer.
"Close? What kind of close? There are different kinds of close ."
The RNC had put some resources into the race. It had only been three years since a Republican served on the city council here. It had only been seven years, actually, since two of them did. At that time, an openly gay councilmember named David Catania and a liberal-leaning member named Carol Schwartz both mastered the art of getting elected in a city that votes 90 percent or more for Democratic presidential candidates. But in 2004, Catania bolted the party over the (doomed) gay marriage amendment to the Constitution. In 2008, a Senate staffer-turned-consultant realized that a low-turnout Republican primary would include a lot of voters who didn't consider Schwartz very conservative. She lost the primary, but she ran a write-in campaign that prevented her opponent from winning the general election. His name was Patrick Mara.
In 2010, Mara out-hustled a Democratic incumbent to win the school board seat in his gentrifying neighborhood. (Disclosure: I live in the same neighborhood, and I voted for Mara.) It was, technically, a non-partisan election. But all of a sudden, he was the only elected Republican in D.C. The Washington Post had endorsed him. A lot of liberal Democrats had voted for him. And an at-large seat on the city council had opened up -- just like one had opened up for David Catania, years ago, when he'd squeaked into office. There was a clear path to victory. All Mara needed to do was score a plurality of votes against six Democrats and one member of the Statehood Green Party. The RNC offered up the use of a phone bank. Young Republicans made thousands of calls. They could win this.
But they didn't seem to be winning. Mara's young campaign manager, Buck Cram, zoomed around the party sharing the latest results. The campaign was never up, but it wasn't a problem yet, because the right precincts were still out. More supporters glued themselves to a table near a TV set, reloading returns on a laptop.
Why wasn't he winning? This was odd. At some point this year, after D.C.'s new mayor and city council president were sworn in, voters realized that they'd basically screwed up. The mayor stumbled into scandals over the appointments of unqualified cronies; the city council president was unable to explain why he'd leased two expensive, "fully loaded" Navigators. (One of them was returned because its interior was grey, not black.) Mara ported the national GOP message "we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem" into the district, and pledged, as he'd done before, to be progressive on social issues. The Washington Post endorsed him, again.
But it became clear early in the night that Mara was not going to win. In another era, more Democratic voters might have cast protest ballots for Mara. In 2011, they split their protest votes between him, temporary appointee Sekou Biddle, and former councilman Bryan Weaver. Eventually the top Republicans at the party got a status report from Michael Zak, a local writer and activist best known for his book about the GOP's history of civil rights advances, and his work on that topic for former RNC Chairman Michael Steele when Steele ordered a redesign of the committee's website. Tony Parker, the D.C. Republican who'd become RNC treasurer this year, asked how it looked out there.
"Sub-optimal," he said.
That was about right. D.C.'s heavily black wards cast almost no votes for Mara. To win, he needed to romp in the city's northwest and northeast wards. But Bryan Weaver used to represent one of them, and Biddle campaigned hardest in two of them. Mara only won three of the city's eight wards. When I spotted him shortly before 11 o'clock, he was already putting the election behind him.
"We got the silver again," he shrugged. "Biddle took too many votes, and I was telling people, that might be a problem."
Mara walked downstairs to commiserate with his supporters. Some of them turned their wrath on the D.C. Republican Party, whose chairman was standing not far away, as volunteers sampled some of the bar's craft beers. (A large number, for some reason, came from Salt Lake City.) Left unmentioned, and hard to calculate, was the effect that the congressional budget deal had on the vote. At the last minute, policy riders were stripped from the short-term budget, and in exchange, Republicans got policy riders they wanted in D.C. -- an abortion funding ban, school vouchers. That unpopular mayor and city council president were arrested in a stunt protest. The young Republican Congress had alienated Washingtonians, even if the White House deserved half the blame for using the city as a chit.
"Our delegate doesn't even talk to the Republicans," said Mara.
"We really need a Republican up there sometimes to deal with them," said a supporter.
"That's what I was trying to tell people, but it's a tough intellectual argument to make."
Whatever the case, the city had a chance to get a Republican on the council, which would send some kind of message to the GOP, and the city took a pass on it. Mara kept talking to his supporters, who tried to cheer him up with sports analogies and promises to support him again. The RNC chairman and staff were long gone; there was no GOP or Tea Party victory to celebrate in D.C.
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