There were no actual ideas discussed in the campaign.
It was supposed to be a bad night for Democrats, and sure enough it was.
The party had the best candidate it could have had to attack Gov. Scott Walker on the issue on which he was most vulnerable: jobs. Mary Burke was apparently able to match Walker in the campaign spending wars, and she proved to be a disciplined and hard-working candidate. The Democratic ground game was as strong as it had ever been.
But Burke was swimming against some pretty strong currents. Republicans took back the U.S. Senate with seats to spare and reached historic highs in their House majority. And every other apparently vulnerable Republican governor survived in states like Michigan, Florida and Kansas. In Wisconsin, they even picked up more seats in the state Senate and Assembly. To expect in the midst of all that that Mary Burke was going to pull out a victory is just not reasonable.
What the Democratic Party has to work on is ideas and messaging. Voters didn't so much choose Republicans as they took out their frustration with stagnant wages on Democrats.
The irony is that almost all of the nation's economic growth since the recovery has gone into the pockets of the very richest Americans. It's the Democrats who want to even that out, and yet it was the Democrats that economically frustrated Americans punished with their votes. That's a failure in messaging. What should have been an overwhelming advantage for Democrats turned into a huge negative.
And there were no ideas in any of these campaigns. Voters didn't choose one of two competing agendas because neither party presented one. Our elections have become all about relitigating the past or dissecting the most insignificant foibles of the other candidate, not about competing plans for the future.
Mary Burke did have a jobs plan, but it was never discussed. The only thing most voters knew about it was that sections had been lifted from similar plans of other Democratic candidates. In other words, all most of us knew about the central issue in the campaign was a piece of trivia about how one candidate's plan was put together. Nothing was said about the substance.
So where do we go from here? Well, straight to 2016, when things will be better. The demographics of a presidential year are much better for Democrats. And over the long term, the rapid growth in Hispanic, millennial and urban voters is going to be overwhelming. It's hard to believe this from where we sit today, but there really is a long-term liberal majority in the offing.
But Democrats can't take that for granted. They need to make it clear that it's their policies that will address the economic inequities that plague America, and then they need to put forward specific ideas along those lines that Americans can get behind.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at isthmus.com/citizendave.