What a difference two years makes. In November 2008, I hung with Dane County Republicans on the night of the election that brought Barack Obama and the Democrats to power. It was a sad assemblage, with much venting of anger and expressions of fear. Efforts were made to shield the identify of party chair Mike Herl, to protect his business from the repercussions that would surely ensue if he were outed as a Republican.
On Tuesday, the night of the election that brought Republicans to power in Congress and the state of Wisconsin, the mood among the Dane County Republicans gathered at the Great Dane in Fitchburg was jubilant. At one point more than 100 people filled the bar's balcony, taking in the returns on three TV screens, two tuned to Fox News and one to the news on the regular Fox channel.
Even before the returns from Wisconsin started coming in, there was anticipation in the air. "It can only get better," I overheard one man tell his companion. "It can't get any worse."
I struck up a conversation with a couple seated near the bar. The woman, Annie, is a self-described conservative from the city of Middleton who was most energized by the opportunity to vote against commuter rail. An advisory referendum on the subject was on ballots in about half the county, and anti-rail sentiment prevailed.
"I see people not using the public transportation we currently have," said Annie, who lived for a time in New York City, and thinks trains made sense there because of the dense population, but not here. "I firmly believe that people will continue to drive."
Her companion, Gurpreet, described himself as a conservative who feels Republicans have gotten a bum rap, from those on the left. "I feel much more comfortable labeling myself a conservative than being associated with progressives and liberals."
Gurpreet was wearing a red turban, identifying himself as a Sikh. I asked if he felt his faith and Indian ethnicity were accepted by Republicans. He said he did, then turned the tables on me. "Did you see Jon Stewart's rally?" he asked me, invoking last weekend's comedic gathering in Washington D.C. "A lot of white people there." Touché.
Rodney Kreunen, the former State Railroad Commissioner, button-holed me, telling story after story. Some were so mind-blowing they have to be true, like how he once placed a long-distance call to Winston Churchill and actually got through for a chat. Kreunen, who is 74, says he's voted for Republicans going back to Nixon in 1960.
So whom did he vote for in the current election? Kreunen, despite being at a grand old party hosted by the Grand Old Party, wouldn't say. Instead, he praised Russ Feingold as trustworthy and expressed support for both gubernatorial candidates.
"I'm comfortable with either [Tom] Barrett or [Scott] Walker," he said, as Fox News began flashing numbers showing Walker out in front. "Both are very fine people."
The state of the state, however? That's not so fine. "Whoever's governor -- oh my God, they have the worst set of circumstances in history."
I asked Kreuen about the proposed Amtrak line, which Walker has vowed to block, no matter what the cost, in the name of fiscal responsibility, and the commuter rail scheme that conservatives like Annie are so bothered by. Kreuen eagerly supports both: "When gasoline hits $5 a gallon, or $6, everybody will say, 'Why aren't we looking to the future?'"
Mike Herl was there, and this time he greeted me warmly and agreed to an interview, with his name and everything. "It's tough for us [Dane County Republicans]," he assures me. "We like having a night like this now and then." He praises both Walker and Ron Johnson for having "never wrote off Dane County." Even though it is a Democratic stronghold, "they came here again and again."
I left soon afterward and headed for Chad Lee's get-together at the Esquire Club on Madison's north side, hoping to catch a glimpse of GOP defeat. But even here, the mood was upbeat. Moments before Tammy Baldwin addressed her supporters in a victory that seemed ordained all along, Lee's campaign spokesperson told me the race is "still up in the air."
It was that kind of night, when it seemed to local Republicans that anything was possible, anything at all.