Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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.

Inside Politics: Florida 13 Results
Hillary, Jeb and a nasty GOP primary
Will Republicans hold the House?

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.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT