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.
Independents helped Obama and the Democrats win the White House and Congress in 2008. Retaining their votes is vital to any Democratic strategy.
"What happened is that independents, the very people who put together the winning coalition for Barack Obama and Democrats and put them in power, are fleeing in droves," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee.
The Democratic leadership took losing the historically liberal seat in an historically liberal state to heart, pledging to take seriously the message voters were sending.
In a message to voters, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said the party would better respond to voters fears about the economy.
"I have no interest in sugarcoating what happened in Massachusetts," Menendez said. "There is a lot of anxiety in the country right now. Americans are understandably impatient. The truth is Democrats understand the economic anger voters feel. That's in large part why we did well in 2006 and 2008.
"In the days ahead, we will sort through the lessons of Massachusetts: the need to redouble our efforts on the economy, the need to show that our commitment to real change is as powerful as it was in 2008, and the reality that we cannot take a single thing for granted and cannot afford even a second of complacency."
Brown beat Coakley with 52 percent of votes to her 47 percent.
Though they can no longer thwart a Republican filibuster, Democrats maintain the largest Senate majority either party has enjoyed since 1979 and still have the ability to pass legislation through reconciliation, a process that bypasses normal Senate rules by requiring only 51 votes.
While many Democrats insist the Massachusetts race was not a referendum on President Obama or a preview of what is to come in November, Republicans are trumpeting their victory.
"As we look forward to the mid-term elections this November, Democrats nationwide should be on notice: Americans are ready to hold the party in power accountable for their irresponsible spending and out-of-touch agenda, and they're ready for real change in Washington," said Cornyn.
In a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 35 percent of the American people said President Obama has done enough to improve the economy. However, among independents that is 28 percent.
But when it comes to the confidence Americans have in their lawmakers, they still support Democrats, according to an ABC News/ Washington Post poll from last week.
Some 43 percent of respondents have confidence in Democratic members of Congress, but just 29 percent of voters felt the same way about Republicans.