HOMESTEAD, Pa. — The night began with giddy eagerness as the crowd trickled into the warren of rooms at the back of a bar just outside Pittsburgh. They were nurses, social workers, professors and retirees who had spent the last two years learning the science of campaigning from scratch and the last few months doing the grueling work.
“No matter what happens,” said Beth Dabruzzo, who hand-wrote thousands of postcards to voters encouraging them to vote for Democrats, “I literally could not have done anything more than I did.”
What followed were three-plus hours of whiplash: Cheers at the victory of some House candidate somewhere, even if the crowd in the back couldn’t hear the name of the state. Groans as Republicans kept winning seats in the Senate. Choice words for Texas and Florida.
Their state, Pennsylvania, delivered what they wanted, by and large — but not in a number of the races that Ms. Dabruzzo and other people gathered at the party had spent the last few months of their lives on.
The lights were turned on, the balloons popped and the candles blown out and Ms. Dabruzzo looked over the results.
“I don’t even know what to think,” she concluded.
This was a sentiment shared nationwide, for Republicans as well as Democrats. No one could seem to say whether a decisive message had been sent in the election results, or if so, what that message was. Some developments were surprising, others surprisingly predictable, but none of it seemed to add up to a satisfying verdict.
“All right, guys,” summed up Marie Norman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh whose two-year-old grass-roots group, Order of the Phoenix, was the host of the party. “We tried. We won some big ones.”
“We tried. We won some big ones,” said Marie Norman, whose grass-roots group, Order of the Phoenix, hosted an election night party.CreditJared Wickerham for The New York Times
Like many of the people around her at the party, Ms. Dabruzzo, 48, had never before experienced an election this way. She had voted before, sent money to candidates a time or two, maybe put up a sign.
But this election had consumed her lunch hours, nights, weekends and holidays. On Oct. 1, she counted: 1,347 postcards, most of them written at night while her husband was at work and she sat in front of “The Rachel Maddow Show.” They were sent to voters in a neighboring congressional district. She estimated she wrote and sent another thousand in the weeks after that.
Later that month, she took a week’s vacation from her job to go with her husband, Jim, 45, an X-ray technologist, to knock on doors in the district, hundreds of them. They were both brand-new to the game, and they both loved it.
But it meant a lot more nerves on a night like Tuesday.
“I tend to get overly excited about things, and when they don’t happen, get that much more depressed,” she said beforehand. “So I’m trying to think not that far ahead.”
The 2016 election had flipped a switch for her. She felt “sick, like the country was sick,” like things had gone badly wrong. It was not mere partisanship — she had voted occasionally for Republicans before; Mr. Dabruzzo had even voted for Rick Santorum, “before he went crazy.” But the Trump victory was different.
This was the case for nearly all the people at the bar on Tuesday night. Most had done almost no political work before 2016, certainly not knocking on strangers’ doors. Then President Trump came and with it “this knot in my stomach,” Professor Norman said.
The morning after that election, Professor Norman and her husband created the Order of the Phoenix at their kitchen table. It was named after the secret society in the “Harry Potter” books, which was set up to fight the villain, Lord Voldemort. It would go on to have more than 7,000 members on Facebook, including Ms. Dabruzzo, all of whom would write postcards, campaign and canvass in local elections.
It was springtime for grass-roots groups in those first months of the Trump presidency. All across the city and suburbs they sprouted: Progress PA, 412 Resistance, Mt. Lebanon Rise Up and many, many more, thousands of mostly middle-aged, mostly college-educated women with little or no prior organizing experience, meeting at marches, huddling on Facebook and setting off on a rapid nuts-and-bolts education in electoral politics that would lead to a massive regional ground game. Some of these new activists would run for office (and indeed some won on Tuesday night).
Ms. Norman checked results at Tuesday’s watch party. Most people there had done almost no political work before 2016.CreditJared Wickerham for The New York Times
At first, Ms. Dabruzzo was a bystander, occasionally lurking in the Order of the Phoenix group on Facebook. But the narrow special election victory of Conor Lamb in March was the first test of the new operation, a defining moment in southwest Pennsylvania activist circles.
“We felt like we could really accomplish something,” said Cindy Callahan, a member of the Order of the Phoenix, who was helping put up balloons as the party got underway on Tuesday night. “We were the biggest percentage of canvassers in Washington County!”
With a margin of 755 votes in Mr. Lamb’s race, everyone involved felt like they could have made the final difference. And in a district as Republican as his, it seemed that the direction of the country was truly in the hands of the highly motivated volunteers. It was this kind of optimism that drew Ms. Dabruzzo to the campaign of Ron DiNicola, the Democrat running in the 16th district, a half-hour from where she lives. It was a district much like Mr. Lamb’s, and so it, too, could possibly be swung with enough effort.
“You have power in numbers,” Ms. Dabruzzo said. “When you get together with other people you can actually do something.”
As Tuesday night wore on, that sense of control had faded somewhat.
“All we can do is what we do in Pennsylvania,” announced Charlene David, a nurse and member of the Order of the Phoenix who had helped organize the party on Tuesday. By that time, it was late and already becoming clear that the night’s results would be mixed: good for Democrats, even really good for Democrats in Pennsylvania. But for those deeply committed, not good enough.
Ms. David was sounding a common note: A single American may not have power over Florida, or Texas, or the presidential election, or the races around Philadelphia, but that does not mean the only option is to sit back and despair. That is why so many joined the movement in Pennsylvania, because “it’s therapy,” as Ms. Dabruzzo said: Because doing something is not only better than sitting at home, but, as Mr. Lamb’s election showed, it can actually pay off.
Still, some of the races in which she had put in hours and hours of work were slipping away. The State House campaigns she had adopted, always long shots, were falling short, in some cases badly. And Mr. DiNicola, who had been leading in the returns all night, started to trail as the last votes came in and the bar in Homestead was closing down.
“We didn’t knock on enough doors,” Ms. Dabruzzo said to herself.
In their car on the dark street outside, Mr. Dabruzzo looked into the glow of his phone and confirmed: Mr. DiNicola had conceded. it was over.
Ms. Dabruzzo sighed. “Back to the drawing board,” she said.
Not that she was done with politics. Not at all. On Wednesday morning, she was already conferring with her fellow activists. A special election was coming for the State Senate district just next door. By noon, she was already checking Amazon for prices on bulk postcards.