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Others said that while the economy was the driving factor, party leaders got sidetracked on the messy health care bill debate and at times forced members into difficult votes that weren’t necessary. Several conservative Democrats pointed to a contentious emissions-control energy bill that squeaked by in the House but never got a vote in the Senate.

“If you know the Senate’s not going to pass something, why bring it up in the House when you also know it’s going to be awfully controversial in these districts that are hard to hold,” said Mr. Marshall, the Georgia Blue Dog who lost.

Mr. Marshall and Blue Dog co-chairman Jim Matheson, Utah Democrat, said the party needs more centrist leadership.

“She was certainly an issue in many races, including mine,” said Mr. Matheson, the only one of the three Blue Dog co-chairs to survive Tuesday, and only narrowly. “I think there’s an argument you gotta shake things up.”

Mr. Saunders, the campaign strategist from Virginia, said the party got off track by focusing for so long on the health care bill, which he said was too big and confusing, and played into Republican criticism of government run amok.

“The idea that government can force you to buy health insurance just goes against the independent spirit,” he said. “It’s a cultural thing. Democrats just don’t get the culture down here.”