Election night began festively at FreedomWorks headquarters, not two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Staff had posted their electoral map predictions on the glass conference room walls (most projecting a Romney win, just in different configurations). Beer flowed from taps on the kitchen island into logoed plastic cups, for washing down two massive fajita spreads; kids ran around underfoot. Balloons and stapled-together "FIRE OBAMA" signs served as party decorations for an office already adorned in frat house chic, with framed movie posters from The Big Lebowski and Atlas Shrugged.
FreedomWorks, the group that had fomented, trained, and marshalled Tea Party activists to great effect in 2010, thought it would have reason to celebrate. Since electing a squadron of anti-tax House freshmen, they've poured nearly $19 million into races around the country, attempting to build an on-the-ground turnout machine that could rival the hundreds of thousands of union members who've swayed elections for Democrats in the past. They made 4.4 million calls, sent out 8.8 million mailers, held more than 1,000 events.
"We are growing the conservative majority in the U.S. Senate, so we're very happy about that," says chief operating officer Ryan Hecker buoyantly, at about 6:30 p.m., wearing a red Richard Mourdock for Indiana Senate t-shirt over his button-down.
This time around, FreedomWorks spent most of its firepower on the Senate. Its super PAC's top recipients were Jeff Flake in Arizona, Connie Mack in Florida, Josh Mandel in Ohio, Ted Cruz in Texas, Tom Smith in Pennsylvania, George Allen in Virginia, and Mourdock—a race particularly close to Hecker's heart, since they'd helped him knock off Republican moderate Richard Lugar in the primary, in one of the Tea Party's greatest shows of strength. (As for the whole rape remark thing—Hecker figured voters don't care too much about abortion). The group also dropped millions to take out Orrin Hatch in Utah and Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, without even endorsing their opponents.
In part, the Senate strategy is a consequence of not caring much for Mitt Romney. The FreedomWorkers hoped that their ground game could help send momentum towards the top of the ticket, but found it difficult to say anything nice about the guy who'd passed universal healthcare in Massachusetts.
"It's not like I'm watching him and I'm excited about him," says Adam Wise, a researcher with the American Legislative Exchange Council who'd stopped by the party to avoid sitting at home on his couch. "He's just the other option."
The beginning of the night turned out to be the high point. Cheers broke out occasionally in the conference room where people gathered around a wall-mounted flatscreen fixed on Fox News, but only to provide an enthusiastic backdrop for a TV broadcast beaming out to supporters around the country. Partygoers watched quietly, grumbling in hopeless frustration when Fox called Pennsylvania early, huffing in disgust as Elizabeth Warren pulled ahead in Massachusetts. "If we lose tonight, it won't be fun," warned the previously jovial guy manning the live stream computers, around 7:45 p.m.
Hecker stared at a laptop screen, with Mourdock down two points, as if willing the conservative "donut counties" around Indianapolis to pull him out of the hole. "Just the thought of how much work we did in that race," he said to a colleague. "Well, we tried our best."
As Sherrod Brown pulled through in Ohio, and Bill Nelson in Florida, wins for Flake and Cruz—both in open Senate seats previously held by Republicans—felt like a silver lining. The biggest genuine cheer of the night came for ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana ("Road trip!" someone whooped).
FreedomWorks researcher Patrick Hedger, who joined up even before graduating from George Mason University this spring, had spent the last two weeks campaigning in Florida, knew it was over for Romney as the lead seesawed wildly before settling in Barack Obama's column. "Romney doesn't necessarily move on without Florida," he said. "It's too many votes."
Hedger took a turn on the live stream and talked about how even if Obama won, he should listen to all the voters in Florida angry about things he'd done. Then he sat back down at the computer. "Oh Jesus," he said, and walked away. "Seriously, if we lose Florida, I'm gonna cry," said a woman who'd been on the trail with him.
The most frustrating thing about the impending loss, for Hedger, was that Romney—and people like Scott Brown in Massachusetts—might've won if they stuck to a more FreedomWorky message. "I think the Democrats have been able to make it not about principled economic issues, but about a personality contest, like who you'd rather have a beer with," he said. "Had this race really been a strong referendum on the economy, it would've been a lot different."
The room emptied out as people moved on to the city's other libertarian shindig, at Americans for Tax Reform, leaving just staff huddling in their offices and interns watching results trickle in. Back in the kitchen, with bowls of guacamole turning brown and an American flag-frosted sheet cake untouched, someone had broken out the whiskey. The press secretary politely asked me to leave, before the presidential race was officially called, as if requesting privacy for the family of the deceased at a funeral.
In a way, this wasn't even FreedomWorks' big night—they'd already primaried away the greatest sinners against their purist ideals. "We want to change the culture," as Hecker put it. If nothing else over the past few years, they've succeeded in doing that.
But it sure is nice to win races, too.