After every election, the victors divide the spoils and the losers assign the blame.

Tuesday's ringing defeat of the Republican ticket in Virginia has been blamed on everything from the weather (which reduced voter turnout) to President Reagan's surgery (which delayed a crucial GOP fund-raising event). Party moderates, who were largely excluded from the campaign, blame the New Right conservatives, who were also excluded. Meanwhile, some people are gearing up to purge each other from the party in order to "strengthen" the party. What a way to run a railroad!

If we Republicans are looking for someone to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start.

Almost to the end of the campaign, many Republicans were convinced that the 1981 election was a fluke and that Virginians in 1985 would return to their normal behavior of voting Republican. By nominating a black and a woman, the Democrats eliminated any slim chance they may have had -- or so the "experts" declared.

Convinced that we couldn't lose, we ran a campaign that was better suited to incumbents than to challengers. We talked vaguely of transportation, education and Virginia tradition, but we offered no vision of a better life for the people of the commonwealth. We ran "feel-good" ads -- the kind Ronald Reagan ran when he was 20 points ahead in the polls. We avoided criticizing our opponents' records as if there were something ungentlemanly about it.

Several weeks ago, a well-known conservative group based in Virginia offered to attack Doug Wilder's voting record on crime, taxes, bureaucracy and other issues. Every charge would have been well-documented and within the normal bounds of fair play, but the "negative" campaign was squelched by a GOP leader. As a result, Wilder's voting record remained a mystery to the vast majority of people who voted on Tuesday. In seven of the past 10 years, he was rated one of the two most liberal state senators, but as far as the voting public was concerned he could have been the ideological clone of Ed Meese.

Indeed, the entire Democratic platform this year seemed lifted from the Republicans. Crime, drunk driving, economic growth and equal opportunity used to be Republican themes, but not this year.

The underlying cause of Fiasco '85 is that, during the last four years, the Republican Party of Virginia failed to fulfill the normal role of an opposition party. We weren't out there, day after day, exposing the Democrats' record to the voters. When they made good decisions, they got the credit, but when they made bad decisions, we didn't make them take the blame. We never became credible as an alternative to the Democrats.

Now is the time to recognize that, as Dick Davis said Tuesday night, "Democrats control Virginia." Recognizing that fact is the first step toward changing it. The second step is to follow the strategy of Ronald Reagan and the conservatives during the Carter administration.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter got the votes of blacks and segregationists, of religious conservatives and country-club liberals, of various groups that were inherently incompatible with each other. During the next four years, we pounded away at the cracks in that coalition. We started new grass-roots organizations and new publications, used TV and direct mail to reach new supporters, and forced members of Congress to cast recorded votes on controversial questions. On issue after issue, we forced President Carter and his party publicly to alienate one group of supporters in order to please another group. We did not let them get away with promising everything to everybody.

Meanwhile, we created a grand coalition in opposition to the Carter Democrats -- an alliance that reflected a wide diversity of background and opinion, but general agreement on basic principles. We offered a responsible, conservative alternative to the chaos of the Carter years, won our greatest victory in half a century, and began a realignment that (despite setbacks) could make the GOP the majority party by the end of the decade.

The parallels are obvious between the national Democrats in 1976 and Virginia Democrats in 1985. Like the coalition that elected Carter, the coalition that elected moderate Baliles, liberal Wilder and conservative Terry is too broad to survive the next four years against aggressive Republican opposition. But we won't win in Virginia in '89 if we don't start acting like a real opposition party in '86. And we won't win if we spend four years assigning blame for our defeat in '85.

For hunters of scapegoats, there's another lesson to be learned from the 1976 presidential campaign. When President Ford lost, a lot of Republican experts blamed Robert Dole and Ronald Reagan -- Dole for campaigning negatively, as he was told to do by the president's campaign managers, and Reagan for (supposedly) pushing the party too far to the right.

Most of the experts who blamed Dole and Reagan were never heard from again.