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 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT