Throughout the large party room at the new downtown Il Postino restaurant, there was the usual weary election-night mixture of a few happy faces combined with many more downcast frowns.
At the end of a wrenching night, El Paso County's Democrats knew exactly what had hit them. The tidal wave started on the East Coast, rumbled across the South and Midwest, and came rushing into our midst. Denver and much of Colorado escaped the Republican tsunami, but it struck here with brutal force.
In the end, these Democrats — including many of the party's local leaders — had to feel like survivors. This county went with Tom Tancredo over John Hickenlooper for governor. The sledgehammer of results from here delivered a smashing blow to various state-level races, swinging outcomes to Republicans for treasurer and secretary of state, and nearly undermining Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in his taut battle against Ken Buck.
Yes, Hickenlooper still prevailed impressively, and Bennet's late-night comeback gives the Dems a much better feeling on the larger stage. Exit polls indicated women made the difference for Hickenlooper and Bennet, and that has to be encouraging for the party at the state level.
But here in Colorado Springs, the results became a reality check for the Democrats. There were only two consolation prizes, state Sen. John Morse barely holding off challenger Owen Hill, and Pete Lee easily defeating Karen Cullen for the House seat left by term-limited Dem Michael Merrifield. It's good for us, with Morse still the Senate majority leader (assuming the Dems indeed hold the majority), and Lee likely to make his presence known quickly.
Otherwise, though, the county's Democrats absorbed a nasty beating, especially in two marquee races: Merrifield falling to Peggy Littleton for a commissioner seat, 60-40 percent, and Tom Mowle enduring a more lopsided loss to Wayne Williams for clerk and recorder.
"Those are the ones that really bother me the most," said Hal Bidlack, the county Democratic chairman who ran for Congress with a similar outcome against Rep. Doug Lamborn in 2008. "With Mike Merrifield and Tom Mowle, it wasn't about not having good candidates. They were both tremendous, they worked hard and they came across very well. But it didn't make a difference."
That's because a familiar truth about this county came back to the forefront in this election: If the Republicans are energized, they will dominate. No matter who's standing in their way.
Something else won't sit well with local Dems: They have made progress in pockets, but for the most part, they're still outnumbered and overmatched. If Mowle and Merrifield can't come close to breaking through, despite running exceptional campaigns, it's hard to imagine that anyone else will. In other words, the Dems still have to be smart in picking their battles in this county. The bigger the stage, the worse their chances. No matter how hard they work, or how many volunteers they assemble, the local GOP will always have more.
Morse saw some irony, especially in the fact that the "evil three" state issues numbered 60, 61 and 101 went down to overwhelming defeats.
"The reasons behind those issues losing are our values as Democrats," Morse said. "So the voters like our values, even by 3 to 1, but they don't like us. Instead, they're kicking our butts."
Yes, Hickenlooper will be running the state, and having Joe Garcia as lieutenant governor with his ties to the Springs should be a positive — better than the years when Dick Lamm and Roy Romer were governor and largely ignored El Paso County's interests (starting with major highways).
Also, Dems shouldn't mourn too much at state losses such as Cary Kennedy ousted as treasurer and Bernie Buescher as secretary of state. Surely Hickenloopers will have spots for Kennedy and others, including Merrifield.
But that nationwide tidal wave in this election still felt like just one more Republican beatdown in El Paso County. This is reality, folks. Deal with it.