WASHINGTON -- Republican losses in the 2012 elections were not a progressive leap for America or a repudiation of conservatives and the Tea Party -- it was just proof the right ran bad candidates, according to two Republican senators with ties to some of races where their side fell short.
The most remarkable losses were in Indiana and Missouri, where the GOP had been looking at near-certain wins until their right-leaning standard bearers both took controversial positions on abortion. Missouri Rep. Todd Akin declared women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape." Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock proclaimed that pregnancy from rape is "something God intended to happen."
Republicans also fell short in other states that had looked like reliable pick-ups for them back at the start of the election cycle, losing races to Democrats in North Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin.
Many analysts, especially those leaning Democratic, declared the country was moving left, especially with the passage of same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization initiatives in some states.
But asked what message the GOP should take from their losses, Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Dan Coats (R-Ind.), argued that the Democrats didn't win on the issues, but rather individual candidates had failed Republicans.
"I think we were a unique situation in which our candidate twice said things that he either didn't intend to say or were very well used by the opposition," Coats said, referring to Mourdock, who -- before weighing in on on rape -- had argued against bipartisanship soon after he trounced longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary.
Mourdock "alienated himself with some supporters of Sen. Lugar," Coats said. "Then there was a statement toward the end that dramatically changed the outcome of the race. I think those two together. But I think that's a unique situation that happened in Indiana."
DeMint, whose PAC, Senate Conservatives Fund, backed both Akin and Mourdock, echoed Coats, saying both failed Senate candidates blew their talking points and allowed the media to portray them as extremists.
"We've got to be disciplined as candidates and talk about federal issues in terms of policy," said DeMint, whose goal is to make his party's contingent in the Senate more conservative.
"When we can get baited by reporters to talk about something that's a personal opinion, it really is not something we'd be debating at the federal level. We haven't even decided at the federal level the personhood issue of the child," DeMint said, referring to efforts in many states to confer full constitutional rights on fetuses. "To go from there to exceptions to rape is just not something we need to be discussing. It's basically opinion."
DeMint saw evidence for his view in the Senate wins of Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona and Ted Cruz in Texas, although only Flake faced a strong challenge from a Democrat. He also cited the losses of three other Republicans: Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Rep. Rick Berg in North Dakota and Rep. Denny Rehberg in Montana.
"What I learned is the people who are still out running on bold ideas -- good candidates like Jeff Flake, Ted Cruz running on balancing the budget, repealing Obamacare, cutting spending; [Nebraska's] Deb Fischer did the same thing -- [those] conservatives won," said DeMint. "In the cases of Rehberg, Berg and Tommy Thompson -- having a moderate candidate does not win races for Republicans."
DeMint suggested what his side really needs to do is express itself better.
"We had problems nationwide as Republicans, I think," he said. "We have not communicated in a positive way a vision of where we're taking the country. I think that many thought that Republicans just needed to stand on the sidelines and make Obama the issue. But people need to know what we stand for, what we're going to do, and I don't think we did a good enough job telling people that."
When 2014 rolls around -- another year in which Republicans would seem to have the edge with just 13 senators up for reelection, compared to 20 Democrats -- they have to speak more carefully as well, DeMint said.
"We know the other side talks in sanitized soundbites for a reason, and they don't offer any plans for a reason. If you don't say anything you can't get criticized," DeMint said. "Republicans -- I think it's a good characteristic -- want to explain where they are, but any little soundbite can be used against you. Mourdock was simply trying to say every child is important to God, but the way he said it allowed folks to pound on him."
Democrats certainly disagreed that the election's outcome was an argument for running to the right. But so did Lugar, who fired off a blistering statement after his loss, saying Mourdock's "embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance."
Lugar had no doubts his party should be paying better attention.
"I believe there is a message there," Lugar told HuffPost. He declined to elaborate, but pointed to his stinging concession statement and its denunciation of extreme partisanship.
"I still believe what I had to say," Lugar said.
His fellow Republicans don't see it that way, casting the remarks that brought down Akin and Mourdock as essentially irrelevant.
"I think it's just a matter of focus and discipline and letting people know what it is we're planning to do and not [being] carried off in all these other tangent issues," said DeMint. "That's just a gotcha game, and Republicans have got to be better at not falling for it."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.