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A plate of spaghetti at the Sacred Heart Society.

Image: Laurie Smith

Last night, America watched as Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election with 276 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton's 218.

But in reception halls and restaurants across the city, election night watch parties were equally concerned—if not more so—with the local poll numbers that rolled in slowly throughout the evening.

In our increasingly purple Harris County, this meant that losses weren't restricted to Democrat or Republican, but felt acutely on all sides.

Sacred Heart Society, Republican watch party for Constable Joe Danna

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Joe Danna held his watch party at the Sacred Heart Society.

Image: Facebook

The door to the Sacred Heart Society was marked clearly and delightfully: SPAGHETTI ENTRANCE. Inside is one of Houston’s oldest Italian social clubs, famous for its Thursday pasta lunches (since 1953) and for hosting politicians eager to press flesh with engaged Catholic voters. Harris County turns bluer by the year. Here, political opinion shades red, like the homemade marinara sauce.

Joe Danna, Republican nominee for Harris County Constable in Precinct 1, wouldn’t have held his Election Night watch party anywhere else. His grandfather, Sam Danna, was the society’s first president, back in the early '40s; the patriarch’s faded portrait rests against a table by the entrance, under a statue of Jesus encased in glass. Checkered table clothes cover long banquet tables and photo cases hold framed portraits honoring vets who died in World War II and Korea. The hall is an escape to the past, somewhere to see familiar faces and share a laugh. "This place means everything to us," said Rose Danna, one of Joe’s eight sisters. 

About 50 people—friends, family, coworkers—gathered at 6 p.m. to celebrate Joe and the campaign he’d waged. Trim and tall with a sturdy white mustache, the veteran peace officer had pounded the pavement for four years, convinced that when voters elected his Democratic opponent, incumbent Alan Rosen, "we simply didn’t select the right guy." Richard Wagner, a Danna volunteer and fellow law enforcement official, had never participated in a political campaign before, but he’d knocked doors on behalf of his pal. He calls Danna, with evident pride, "too honest to be a politician."

Down ballot races like Danna’s are easy to ignore, particularly in an election cycle where the presidential candidates suck all the oxygen from the room. Yet there’s something noble and energizing about a group of like-minded people who band together because they want to improve their slice of the world, even (or especially) if the odds are long. Thirty minutes before the county’s polls were set to close, Danna muted the CNN projection screen and delivered a short prayer. Then his supporters flooded to the kitchen to grab their dinners. On orange trays they piled spaghetti and salad with Italian dressing and cake, draining sweet tea from an orange Igloo cooler. The mood was festive, familial.

It wouldn’t last—Rosen took home 135,703 votes to Danna's 72,533. But there’s always another day, and always more pasta to eat.

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Axelrad projected the election results on a wall in its beer garden.

Axelrad Beer Garden, Democratic watch party for the U.S. presidential race

The popular Midtown beer garden was overwhelmingly crowded Tuesday evening, people pressed body-to-body as they craned their necks upward to watch the 2016 election results displayed on a large projection screen painted on the back of Luigi's Pizzeria. Loud chatter and thunderous roars of excitement for each blue state announced on CNN was audible from blocks away, while the waiters who forced their way through the large assemblies, shouting orders and carrying beer cans, remained unheard and overlooked. 

As 8 p.m. rolled around, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey as more and more 20- and 30-somethings dressed in jeans and T-shirts trickled into the bar. They proudly waved signs reading "Nasty Women Vote," "I’m a bad hombre and I vote," and "Hillyes," which they used as photo props for selfies, and took to the floor with a blanket and their dogs when picnic tables left no room for an extra seat.

When asked why a venue like Axelrad—a beer garden best known for its hammock grove—was selected for a local Democratic watch party, president of the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats James Lee said the organization wanted to "provide a space that is comfortable for young people to assemble."

Lee was correct; the bar was the perfect spot. Attendees crammed the space, taking over all tables and piling them high with buckets of beer, pizza boxes and plates of crêpes. For some, like 23-year-old Katy Meraza, this was a welcoming and entertaining introduction to their first-ever election watch party. "This election is historic, and 10 years from now I want to remember where I was at that moment," Meraza gleamed. 

The Sugar Land native was optimistic about the progress of the election, and despite outlandish social media debates she’s come across in the past several months, she strongly believed "the election has enlightened the country, lending hope for democracy as a whole."

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Axelrad's patio was packed.

Many others at the event matched Meraza’s optimism, believing, even as the night went on and Trump's numbers ticked steadily upward, that Clinton could win the presidential election. "I think America knows what they’re doing," added Daisy Salazar, vice president of the University of Houston's student-run political organization College Democrats. She felt hopeful that the Clinton could win Texas, which "meant that not only are young people voting and finally listening, but that both candidates are also driving many first-timers to make a difference."

As the night wore on and the pizza boxes emptied, Republican candidate Donald Trump won more states—Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, and, finally, Texas. A chorus of rowdy boos went up from the crowd. And then, a glum quiet fell like a hush across a terrain where high-energy optimism had reigned only minutes before. One man half-joked to his group of friends that everyone should "get out of here before anyone dies."

The most concerned attendee of all, however, was Ximena Magana. A junior at UH who refers to herself as a "DREAMer," an unauthorized immigrant who qualifies for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors act, Magana claimed she knew Trump would win Texas all along. She didn't feel a sense of loss—only fear, especially for the Hispanic community in Houston.

"If Hillary wins, people are still going to get angry, and if Trump wins, it’s the Latinos' fault for not voting, so at the end of the day we’re still stuck in the middle," Magana explains. "The fight just got started."

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