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3 lessons Democrats must learn after Florida loss

By Donna Brazile
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile says Democratic loss in Florida special election was closer than expected
  • Still, she says, there are lessons to be learned
  • A message of fear, activating base voters and a better ground game helped the GOP win

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- There's no question about it -- I hate to lose. On Tuesday, Alex Sink, a great Democrat running in a special congressional election in Florida, lost.

When a campaign doesn't go my way, I always take a step back, look at the facts and try to figure out what we could learn from that experience. And we definitely learned some lessons from the Florida special election.

First off, let's put this in perspective. Republicans held this congressional district for six decades. In the past decade, Congressman Bill Young won his seat by anywhere from 15% to 38%. Public polling in the run-up to Election Day showed that the electorate was going to skew toward Republicans by around 10%.

The actual Republican margin of victory? About 2%.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

I don't like losing any race, but let's not overstate what this was. We saw a Republican win in a district that is traditionally held by Republicans -- by a significantly lower margin than in the past 60 years.

So, what did we learn?

There's the Republican dogma, bought by beltway pundits and some in the mainstream media, that it was a referendum on Obamacare. The appeal to repeal worked, so they say.

But, as a great American once sang, "it ain't necessarily so."

According to David Weigel at Slate, both David Jolly, the Republican, and Sink, the Democrat, "rejected the national 'narrative' that the race was a clear referendum on Obamacare."

By a strong majority, Independents sided with the Democrat who was committed to fixing and improving Obamacare over the Republican who wants to repeal it.

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That wasn't enough to change the advantage Republicans held going into Election Day, but we came really close.

How about money? Yes, Republicans pumped money into this race. Republican special interest groups are still committed to throwing money behind any candidate running with an "R" as a suffix. In this race outside Republican groups dumped in $5 million to squeak out a win in a district they carried by 15% in 2012.

Money might have been a factor, but third party groups aligned with Democrats also poured in money to help get out the vote. So Democrats can't entirely say we lost because we were outspent.

What, then, was it about? What are the real lessons?

I think there are three: the message, boots on the ground and motivating the base.

1. Don't be afraid: The Republican message was, as is so often, "be afraid." Republicans accused Democrats of $716 billion in Medicare cuts. This was the same theme, as progressive activist Dave Johnson pointed out, that shifted the 2010 election to Republicans, and it helped again.

It's ironic, of course, because Democrats want to fix healthcare, make it better and more affordable. It's ironic because, by a strong majority, independents sided with the Democrat who was committed to fixing and improving Obamacare over the Republican who wants to repeal it. It's ironic because from the start, Democrats introduced, pushed for, defended and protected Medicare.

But the "be afraid" message works well for Republicans, in part because the Democrats don't counter it. "Don't be afraid" is just not that good of a message.

2. Hit the ground: The second thing we learned, not surprisingly, is that Democrats cannot win without a good ground game -- and turnout still matters.

Let's face it, more Republican voters filed and submitted absentee ballots than Democrats, and more turned out on Election Day. As Johnson pointed out, 58% in precincts Mitt Romney won in 2012, and 48.5% in precincts Obama won. About 49,000 fewer people voted in this election than in the 2010 general midterm election (down 21%), and 158,500 fewer than in the 2012 presidential election (down 46%).

We saw yet again that when fewer people participate in the process, when fewer people vote, Republicans win. Democrats believe that when more people vote, it's not just good for our party, it's good for democracy.

3. It's all about the base: The third lesson is Democrats must motivate the base and not rely in traditional methods to reach voters.

In this week's election, turnout was lower than it was in the 2010 midterm elections, and much lower than it was in the 2012 presidential race.

Low turnout in off-year races is always a challenge for Democrats. Many of our voters require information and must be contacted way ahead of Election Day -- and reminded of what's at stake. Yes, a little red meat helps because these voters tend not to be as seasoned when it comes to knowing the issues, like raising the minimum wage and creating good paying jobs.

Luckily, we'll have another chance to win this seat back in November -- and with more people voting, we'll have an even better shot at picking up the seat.

While we learned important lessons that will help us win in November, we won't fret over this loss too much. After all, the Republican in charge of electing Republicans to Congress said before the election, "special elections aren't too predictive for either side going forward." That was true before Election Day, and it's true today.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

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