Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

3 lessons Democrats must learn after Florida loss

By Donna Brazile
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
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
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT