Below, we look three key hurdles for the party on the leadership front.
1. The party has no obvious leader, and its congressional leaders don't fit the bill
When she launched her 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton avoided anybody who was considered a top-tier challenger for the presidency. This was partially because she was Clinton, but also because the Democratic bench wasn't that deep. There just weren't many Democrats ready to take that big a step, because the party's bench in Congress and even at the governor level had been decimated by the 2010 and 2014 elections.
Now, with Clinton no longer in line to be president for the next four years, it leaves the party without an obvious national leader. They don't even have a House speaker or Senate majority leader to assume the role. Instead, they have 76-year-old House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and 65-year-old incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). Those are the highest-ranking Democrats in American government in January.
Both, of course, have shown they are savvy political operators, but neither is the face of a party — especially from an opposition standpoint. Republicans in recent years have at least had House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and then House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) leading a chamber, forcing votes and negotiating with President Obama when it was called for. President Donald Trump won't have to spend much time holding summits with Pelosi and Schumer, and they won't be able to stand in his way nearly as much.
As for alternatives, President Obama could certainly stay involved in politics after his tenure ends, but a former president usually doesn't meddle in the affairs of his successor. First lady Michelle Obama could, too, but she doesn't seem to have the appetite for all politics all the time. Vice President Biden, 73, also appears done with politics.
It could be time for someone like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to take a leadership role. But both are uneasy fits for a job that tends to demand pragmatism over idealism.
2. The party now must deal with an emboldened Sanders/Warren contingent
Speaking of Sanders, the results of Tuesday's election can only fire up his supporters, who were somewhat reluctant to embrace Clinton in the first place and will certainly push for a real conversation about whether the party should pursue a different, more-Bernie direction. Some groups are already calling for a thorough self-examination.
That leaves Democrats in a situation pretty familiar to Republicans — choosing between the standard path of an establishment-friendly platform with a potentially more ideological brand of populism. The GOP's famous-infamous 2012 autopsy did not really change much, but it did reflect a party torn between its base, which wanted no moderation on things like immigration reform, and its leaders, who worried about losing Latino voters for decades to come.
Republicans at least got something of a resolution to their identity crisis in this election, given Trump's victory. Democrats have no such clarity, and there's now a leadership vacuum in which ambitious pols can really try to push the party in a new direction. That's an opportunity, sure, but it's also likely to be a completely uncertain time.
3. The party is still an old party in Congress
The results Tuesday were not all doom and gloom for the Democratic bench. The party installed two possible future leaders in safe Democratic Senate seats — state Attorney General Kamala Harris, 52, in California and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, 57, who is a former member of House leadership, in Maryland.
They also elected Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a 48-year-old Iraq veteran, in Illinois, and 52-year-old former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. Cortez Masto, Duckworth and Harris are all diverse, youngish female voices for the party who could carve big profiles.
But the overall picture for Democrats is decidedly not young and full of rising stars. As things stand, just 11 of the 30 youngest senators in the next Congress will be Democrats, and they'll have just 4 of the 13 senators under 50 years old, including Duckworth.
The currently less-hierarchical GOP has done a good job of winning key races with younger candidates in recent years, and that filters up to the national and presidential level eventually.
Point No. 3 is more of a long-term issue for Democrats than an immediate concern, but it speaks to the same problem.
And yes, it's easy to oversell the tough spot Democrats find themselves in after a tough loss — “Dems In Disarray!” and all that — but they have a bunch of very real questions to answer about who leads the party going forward.