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After all the campaign talk of Founding Fathers and other long-dead leaders, it seems only fitting that on election night, they are the only men to be found in the Capitol.
On Tuesday night, as the election returns began rolling in and celebrations started in hotel ballrooms and bars across the country, the domed white building sat nearly empty. By the time the last streaks of light had left the sky, the marble busts, bronze statues and oil renderings of the nation’s deceased greatest were the only figures left, save for a few Capitol Police officers.
Candidates around the country had spent the better part of the past year professing disgust at Washington, D.C., and Congress — whose most powerful symbol is its marble-clad Rotunda. And yet, they spent millions of dollars and months of energy trying to become its most powerful insiders.
They hoped to someday enter the Senate chamber, which on election night was closed from sight behind heavy wooden doors, or stride onto the House floor, which on Tuesday night could be glimpsed through the glass panes of the doors leading to the Speaker’s Lobby.
Someday, those Washington-bashers will take lunch at the Members’ Dining Room, arguably one of the most exclusive restaurants in the country. On election night, though, it is closed. Outside the doors, coat hangers dangled on an empty coat rack.
All of the drama on election night centers on who will walk these halls and who will control this building. But on this one night, it is the one place you won’t find anyone.
Earlier in the evening, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was apparently the only Member working in the building. The Kentucky Republican’s office on the second floor, just steps from the Senate floor, hummed with activity.
Staffers gathered around a television screen while they waited for their boss, who was preparing for the upcoming lame-duck session. Their voices bounced off the polished tiled floors and down empty hallways.
“It’s like when your wife goes into labor,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart, who was one of the small band of staffers in the office. “At this point, you can’t affect the outcome.”
Around 7:30 p.m., McConnell left, surrounded by a knot of his aides, who appeared to be in a jubilant mood. The night was still young, and they could very well end it with the prospect of retaking the Senate.
And then, all was silent in the Capitol.
Part of the reason for the quiet has to do with Congressional rules: House and Senate policy forbids using Congressional resources for campaign purposes. Staffers usually interpret that to mean that campaign business can’t be done in Congressional buildings.
The Capitol as an election-night ghost town is a relatively recent tradition. It once might have been the site of rowdy soirees. “It’s in contrast to 1994. ... You can’t have committee chairmen throwing parties where lobbyists set up dinner tables in the committee rooms anymore,” says Jan Baran, an election law attorney with Wiley Rein.
But now, the rules are different — and so is the attitude toward Washington.
Throughout the campaign season, one could have replaced the words “Washington” and “inside the Beltway” with “Gomorrah” and “the River Styx,” and the meaning would have been the same.
Washington was portrayed as a mythical place where terrible things happen to people, even ones who might have once been sensible.
Dino Rossi, the Republican who challenged Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in a race whose outcome isn’t yet clear, sounded a decidedly anti-Washington note in a debate against the incumbent.
“The problem in Washington, D.C., is they just can’t admit when they’re wrong,” Rossi said. “They can’t change course.”
And Charlie Crist, the Florida Republican-turned-Independent, similarly hinted that D.C. has a transformative power.
“Washington is broken,” he declared during a debate against his opponents for the Florida Senate seat, Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek. “You know, these guys go up there, if they go, and they get into their foxhole.”
In fact, Washington was such a toxic subject, one candidate treated it like political kryptonite.
Ron Johnson, the millionaire who toppled Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in the Wisconsin Senate race, boasted that he had never even set foot in Washington before entering the campaign.
Since declaring his candidacy, Johnson told CNN that he only went to Washington three times, and even then, he hinted, he didn’t inhale.
“Just to familiarize myself, you know, meet with some groups,” he said. “That’s it.”
And although some candidates won’t have the chance to catch the dreaded Potomac fever, others who bashed Washington will call it home — at least part time.
They will walk the very halls that sat empty on election night. And in the days to come, when the building is again abuzz with the sounds of footsteps and banging gavels, they will be part of the din.