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Democrats sift through the debris

Democrats on Wednesday morning began sorting through the wreckage of disastrous midterm elections in which losses eclipsed even their worst fears.

The scale of the defeats, taken together, was breathtaking: a Senate majority lost, more than a dozen House seats swept away, and Democrats ousted from governors’ mansions across the country.

The drubbing is sure to spark a round of soul-searching, as Democrats ponder whether President Obama is to blame — or whether something deeper has gone wrong in the party that could threaten its chances of retaining the White House in 2016.

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“This is where the administration has to take a real honest look at its decisionmaking and its management. Between the Veterans Administration, the health care website. … It was a lot of things for the last two years that kept feeding this concern that Democrats aren’t able to manage this government,” said one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Finger-pointing had begun between Senate Democrats and the White House even before every race has been decided. The blame game is sure to get worse in the coming days.

“The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent,” David Krone, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBiden fails to break GOP 'fever' Nevada governor signs law making state first presidential primary Infighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms MORE (D-Nev.) told Washington Post reporters. “What else more is there to say? ... He wasn’t going to play well in North Carolina or Iowa or New Hampshire. I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean that the message was bad, but sometimes the messenger isn’t good.”

Democratic losses were staggering in the Senate. The hopes of party strategists that ominous final polls might have been overstating the Republican advantage proved hollow.

If anything, the reverse proved true: In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst defeated Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce Lowell BraleyThe Memo: Trump attacks on Harris risk backfiring 2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster OPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP MORE (D) by almost 9 percentage points; in Colorado, incumbent Sen. Mark UdallMark Emery UdallKennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' MORE (D) went down to Rep. Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (R) by about 5 percentage points. Even North Carolina, the battleground state about which Democratic strategists were most confident, fell: Sen. Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden's gun control push poses danger for midterms MORE (D) lost out to the GOP’s Thom Tillis there by about 50,000 votes.

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Biden struggles to detail post-withdrawal Afghanistan plans Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle MORE’s (D) achievement in holding off former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) in New Hampshire was the only significant bright spot for the party. In the House, longtime incumbents, such as Reps. John BarrowJohn Jenkins BarrowOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 Republican wins Georgia secretary of state runoff to replace Kemp The most important runoff election is one you probably never heard of MORE (D-Ga.) and Nick RahallNick Joe RahallOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 We shouldn't allow politics to impede disaster relief Break the cycle of partisanship with infant, child health care programs MORE (D-W.Va.) were swept away by the GOP wave.

Losses in governors’ races — which the White House had touted last week as a better barometer of a successful evening — were even more shocking. Republicans prevailed in states that are normally considered solid blue, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois.

According to national exit poll data, most voters said they were frustrated with Washington gridlock and with the performance of both parties, but President Obama’s approval ratings were particularly dismal.

Fifty-five percent of voters said they disapproved of his job performance; 42 percent strongly disapproved. When asked to describe their feelings toward the Obama administration, 60 percent said they were “angry” or “dissatisfied” versus 40 percent who declared themselves “enthusiastic” or “satisfied.”

However, 78 percent also said they disapproved of the job Congress was doing, and 60 percent characterized themselves as “angry” or “dissatisfied” with GOP leadership.

“People point to the president's unpopularity in these states, and that was an issue, but in many cases the congressional Republican and Tea Party brand was equal or worse,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell.

“But, give them credit, Republicans were able to outperform their brand by running smart races, and they had an incredibly simple message.”

Much like in 2010, the midterm electorate tilted toward Republicans — 37 percent of voters self-identified as conservative, 40 percent said they were moderate, and 23 percent described themselves as liberal.

When all of those dynamics were fed into the mix, the results were grim for Democrats.

“I won’t sugarcoat it — we always knew tonight would be a challenging night, and it was for Democrats at every level,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Israel rationalized House losses, arguing that “an avalanche of outside spending” had moved seats the GOP’s way at the end of the campaign. But other Democrats suggested that the party’s message had missed the mark — and that the White House bore at least some responsibility for that failure.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinThe Memo: The center strikes back Sunday shows - Voting rights, infrastructure in the spotlight Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack MORE (D-W.Va.), a frequent critic of both the Obama administration and the Senate leadership of outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said the president’s policies, specifically on energy, had taken a toll.

“It doesn't make sense that we have to fight so hard against our own government and our own administration and our president to try to find a balance,” Manchin told MSNBC Tuesday night.

Ultimately, Democrats feel a number of races started to slip away from them in the final days. The pattern was apparent even in Virginia, where Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting On The Money: Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle | White House rules out gas tax hike Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination MORE (D) — considered safe by just about everyone — remained locked in a too-close-to-call race against Republican Ed Gillespie as dawn broke on Wednesday.

“You can't only count on a ground game,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill. Mellman described the political environment as “toxic” for his party and asserted that this was something for which Obama could not be held solely responsible.

Ultimately, Democrats feel they had just too much to overcome, including a rapidly shifting news cycle that veered away from their preferred topic of economic fairness, and unexpected crises ranging from the resurgence of Islamic militancy in the Middle East to the Ebola outbreak.

“Over the course of the last year, Democrats’ message on the economy, fighting for the middle class and Republican dysfunction either hasn’t broken through or [has] been drowned out by outside events,” said Thornell.

“Republicans have been effective in pushing out a pretty simple message that the president has been a failure. It doesn’t help party enthusiasm when you have a small but vocal group of congressional Democrats running away from him.”

Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson might have put it simplest when he touted the Democrats’ victory in New Hampshire.

“The fact that we got our butts kicked up and down the block only makes it *more* hilarious that Scott Brown lost,” he tweeted.