Democrats: ‘We lack a clear message’

Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaks before a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday.
Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaks before a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday. AP

Democrats “were not connecting with voters” in recent elections, a party report concluded Tuesday, a trend driven home by the party’s surprising loss of the Kentucky governor’s office this month.

“We lack a clear message about what unites and animates us as Democrats,” the Democratic Victory Task Force said.

“This has contributed to a disjointed style of communicating through long lists of policy statements, which are not well understood or embraced by voters,” the panel said, while insisting that most support those policies.

The Democrats’ loss of the Kentucky governor’s office in this month’s election – where they had led in pre-election polls – capped a string of losses since 2008.

While Democrats won the White House twice in the last seven years, they have lost 69 seats in the House of Representatives, 13 seats in the Senate, more than 900 seats in state legislatures, 13 governorships and 30 state legislative chambers. Last year, it lost control of both houses of Congress.

We didn’t experience these losses overnight and we’re not going to climb back out of what caused these losses overnight.

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, explaining the GOP victory in Kentucky’s governor’s race

The outgoing Democratic governor of Kentucky, who did not seek re-election because of term limits, was among those warning of party problems for months and a co-author of the new analysis.

“The Democratic Party has lost its way,” Gov. Steve Beshear warned at a Democratic National Committee meeting in February.

“In order to win elections, the Democratic Party must reclaim voters that we’ve lost, including white Southern voters,” a party task force reported at the time.

So why, Beshear was asked Tuesday, didn’t Kentucky Democrats heed his own warnings? Or adopt some of the report’s suggestions?

“As we pointed out, this is a work in progress,” he said of the study. “And lots of it started to be implemented in Kentucky.” He said there were several factors that contributed to Republican Matt Bevin’s surprising win, including “a historically low turnout.”

He also noted “the factors that caused the Republican to be successful in Kentucky, including running as an outsider, against the establishment, running against the president.” He cited Democratic victories in two other statewide races.

“I don’t think you can take any one of those factors and say it conclusively shows we’ve got to change this or change that in order to win elections,” said Beshear.

Republicans were quick to pounce.

“It’s only fitting that this report was led by a Democrat governor whose seat was just picked up by Republicans and that their proposed state-level efforts will be led by another Democrat governor (Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe) who lost critical legislative races this November,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

Democrats in Kentucky have turned on one another in an intensifying blame game. Matt Jones, a popular sports talk host being recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to run against Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., took to his Kentucky Sports Radio show after the election to blast his party.

Jones assailed the Kentucky Democratic Party for running candidates who “don’t relate to Kentuckians.” He and many other Democrats in the state also blame President Barack Obama, who he said “killed the Democratic Party.”

Adam Edelen, a casualty of Kentucky’s Republican wave, wasn’t so sure about the path forward. Until Election Day, Edelen was the Democrats’ rising star, the state auditor enjoying bipartisan praise as Kentucky’s tax watchdog and preparing for a U.S. Senate run against Rand Paul next year.

Then a little-known and vastly underfunded Republican state representative beat Edelen.

The national leadership of the Democratic Party is drowning out voices at the regional and state level, and that’s why we’re losing these elections.

Adam Edelen, Democrat, Kentucky state auditor

In the days since the Kentucky election, a number of Democrats have been angry that so many of the counties that voted for Bevin are among those that have benefited most from Beshear’s decision to implement the Affordable Care Act in the state, a decision that Bevin has said he plans to reverse.

Their 18-page blueprint for change includes developing and communicating a “clear, values-based message on the core tenets of the party,” as well as strengthening the nuts and bolts that make a party run. The party has significantly increased funding it provides to state parties and implemented training programs for state party executive directors.

It’s also beefed up efforts to use social media, as well as investing in targeting sympathetic voters.

But party officials know they’ve got a tough job ahead. “Unfortunately, loud rhetoric can be enticing,” said Beshear.

As a result, he said, “we need now more than ever to claim our mantle as the political party of reason and fairness. We also need to continue to promote innovation and prosperity for all.”

Lightman reported from Washington, Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader from Lexington, Ky.

GOP in Congress

Republicans have a 246-188 majority in the House of Representatives and control 54 of the Senate’s 100 seats.