THE BLOG
11/21/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

5 Lessons From the Midterm Elections

Democrats got shellacked on November 4. Republicans gained at least eight Senate seats, 12 House seats, and three governorships. Democratic partisans spread the blame around: President Obama, party leaders, lethargic blue voters, and a hostile media. Nonetheless, there are five elementary lessons to be learned from the debacle.

1. Republicans are sheep; Democrats are cats. One of the reasons that Democrats don't do well in midterm-elections is that, like cats, they don't take direction well. On the other hand, Republicans are like sheep. Every two years, Republican politicians bow their heads, turn towards their Washington leaders, and dutifully follow their directions. In 2014 this meant that Republican candidates universally labeled their Democratic opponent as an Obama clone and claimed that he or she "votes with Obama 99 percent of the time."

In contrast, the Democratic cat candidates for the 14 contested Senate seats each went their own way. As a consequence, while Minnesota Senator Al Franken made "fighting for good jobs" his central message ("we all do better when we all do better"), Colorado Senator Mark Udall denigrated his sheep opponent, Cory Gardiner, as "too extreme for Colorado." Guess which Democrat won.

In addition to lambasting Dems, in general, Republican leaders provided their flock with a national message of the week. In the last few weeks of the election, this segued from Obama's alleged abuse of executive power to White House alleged incompetence dealing with ISIS to the administration's alleged incompetence dealing with Ebola. In contrast, Democrats didn't have a message of the week. But even if they had had one, none of the Democratic cats would have followed it.

All this should change in 2016 when Democrats will have a national presidential candidate and, hopefully, will present a more disciplined message.

2. If you're a sheep, it doesn't matter whom your candidate is. If you're a cat, it does matter. Reviewing the list of 2014 Democratic candidates for the 14 contested Senate seats, the Dems lost where they fielded weak candidates; for example, Bruce Braley in Iowa and Allison Grimes in Kentucky. (Criminy! Grimes wouldn't admit she had voted for Obama!)

The most expensive House race in the country happened in California Congressional District 7, where incumbent Democrat Ami Bera beat millionaire Republican sheep Doug Ose. Even though Ose wrote personal checks to cover his campaign expenses, Bera won because he was a better candidate.

In 2016, Democrats need to do a better job of vetting their candidates.

3. Sheep need handlers. Republicans don't trust their candidates to speak extemporaneously and, therefore, assign them handlers who keep them on a tight leash. In 2000, that meant that Karl Rove had George W. Bush give the same simple speech over and over and wouldn't let him speak off the cuff. In 2014 that meant that Republican Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst -- who's as loony as Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann -- wouldn't talk to the Iowa press.

The problem with the Democratic stance -- that their candidates don't need handlers -- is that it assumes Democratic politicians have common sense. Unfortunately, sometimes they don't. In 2014 this meant that Democratic Iowa Senate Candidate Bruce Braley shot himself in the foot by derogatorily referring to incumbent Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley as "a farmer from Iowa, who never went to law school..."

Again, in 2016, Dems need to run better candidates.

4. If you're a cat, you can't afford to run away from the president. Some Democratic candidates played into the hands of their Republican opponents by refusing to acknowledge President Obama. For example, Allison Grimes in Kentucky and Mark Udall in Colorado -- in July, Udall skipped a Denver fundraiser for his campaign that featured Obama.

This tactic doesn't work for Democratic cats. After all, there are millions of Democrats (and Independents) who voted for Obama -- many of whom still like him.

In 2016, there needs to be an orderly transition from the Obama administration to the (probably) Clinton Administration and Obama needs to be treated with respect.

5. It's the message, stupid! In the aftermath of the election, former Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean, observed, "You've got to stand for something if you want to win."

The key element in the campaigns of unsuccessful Democratic candidates was their lack of message focus. They seemed satisfied to run away from President Obama and paint their opponent as "too extreme for _______." In most cases, Republicans wore "too extreme for ____" as a badge of honor; it gave them "street cred" with their Tea Party base.

More to the point, attacking their Republican opponent didn't get Democrats off the hook for providing a positive message. That was Colorado Senator Mark Udall's big problem; his central message was slamming his opponent. Senator Al Franken won because he focused on jobs and inequality: "fighting for good jobs" and "we all do better when we all do better."

In 2016, Democrats need to follow the leader of Senator Elizabeth Warren who acknowledges that while the economy has grown, "the system is rigged" and, therefore, the plight of the middle class hasn't improved. Democrats have to identify as the Party that is fighting for real change and defending the middle class.