For the optimists in the Democratic Party " target="external">losing the Massachusetts Senate seat Tuesday comes with at least one silver lining: It may have come early enough that Democrats have time to figure out how not to get crushed again in November.
In the single year since President Obama took office and Democrats secured a super-majority in Congress, the party has gone from symbolizing hope and change to representing incumbency and stagnation for many voters.
Though dazed by Martha Coakley's loss to Republican Scott Brown in Tuesday's special election, Democrats are not confused by what happened. After riding a wave of success and support for two years, Democrats have realized in recent weeks that 2010 will be a far more difficult slog.
Though candidates in each state face their own unique set of challenges, Democratic candidates nationwide face the same problem -- being in power. Their incumbency, strategists say, means voters hold them responsible for an historic recession and record unemployment.
Democratic politicians and pundits from New York to California are sounding the alarm: Learn the lessons from Massachusetts in January or be doomed to repeat them in November.
"Regardless of the outcome ... this should be a gigantic wake-up call to the Democratic Party -- that we're not connecting with the needs, the aspirations and the desires of real people right now," Gavin Newsom, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday.
Just weeks before the Massachusetts upset, some of the party's biggest names saw the writing on the wall when Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Democratic Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced they would not seek re-election. Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., and Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., both of whom have served more than three decades in the House, also decided this seemed like a good year to pack it in.
Beyond their immediate problems of losing their filibuster-proof super-majority and perhaps their ability to pass health care legislation, Democrats have a more long-term problem.
If Democrats plan to retain their power in Congress, they need to come up with a strategy that sends the message that despite being the incumbent governing party, they are invested in changing voters' lives for the better, said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
Brazile called the loss "a disguised gift to the Democrats," who should now have enough to time to plot a strategy -- unlike the Democrats in 1994, who did not see the coming Republican takeover of Congress until just weeks before Election Day.
"Brown ran as anti-establishment, anti-incumbent candidate who tapped into voters' anger and frustration," Brazile told ABCNews.com. "If Democrats want to win in November, they need to do the same thing. Any lawmaker who taps into that anger and promises a change will come out a winner."
Some Democrats are pointing fingers at Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general, for running a poor campaign. But others also fault the party for not better defining the way she should have ran.
"Coakley ran like an incumbent instead of like a reform candidate," said Brazile. "Anyone who runs as part of the system is courting disaster. The election is largely driven by independents. Independents don't care if a candidate is Democrat or Republican, they just want results.