5 ways red-state Democrats can avoid Obama-voting gaffes

U.S. Senate candidate West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant marches with her musket in the Ripley 4th of July Parade in Ripley, W. Va., on July 4, 2014.
U.S. Senate candidate West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant marches with her musket in the Ripley 4th of July Parade in Ripley, W. Va., on July 4, 2014.

West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant is the latest red-state Democrat to avoid mentioning President Obama by name when asked who she voted for in the last presidential election.

When Tennant, who is trailing in the polls against her opponent, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, was asked by a Charleston Daily Mail editorial board on Thursday who she cast her ballot for in the last presidential election, she replied, “the Democratic Party.” Tennant then went on to criticize the president’s policies.

Tennant's response wasn’t as evasive as other candidates, including Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. Earlier this month, when asked if she voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, the Democrat told The Courier-Journal’s editorial board, “I respect the sanctity of the ballot box.” She double-downed when asked the same question by a moderator during a debate with incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell earlier this week. Grimes refused to answer, saying, “I am not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or other side or for members of the media. I’ll protect that right for every Kentuckian.”

RELATED: Why do we care who Grimes voted for?

"Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd blasted Grimes' move, saying she "disqualified herself" from the neck-and-neck race by refusing to name Obama. Shortly after her non-comment, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went off the air in Kentucky.

Georgia’s Democratic nominee for Senate, Michelle Nunn, also refused to answer the question. Nunn, who is leading GOP opponent David Perdue in several polls, was approached by America Rising, a conservative tracking firm, earlier this week. She kept quiet when asked if she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Nunn's supporters jumped in, asking "Would you leave her alone?" and that Obama has done "great things." 

Yes, Obama is unpopular in the Democratic candidates’ respective states. But political strategists agree – to avoid the question entirely does more harm than good. They suggest better options and strategies: 

1. “Who do you think I voted for?” Dave “Mudcat” Saunders – the Democratic strategist who worked on Jim Webb’s successful 2006 Senate race, said candidates should “be forceful because it’s a stupid question.” He added, “I’d say, ‘you know who I voted for.’ Don’t insult voters’ intelligence. But with that said, you can say ‘I’m disappointed in Obama and this is what I’m disappointed about. Just tell it like it is.”

2. “If you voted for somebody, say so.” David Winston, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Newt Gingrich, said “to not say you supported your party’s candidate or explain your decision making process is bewildering.” He said candidates “need to walk through why they have since separated from Obama ... If you voted for somebody, say so, then what they need to do is walk through and explain why they are different and why they have veered.”

3. “Don’t play the voters for a fool." Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University, says “I think candidates’ best bet is to treat the citizens of your state and the American public with the respect they deserve. If you can’t answer something as basic when you’re running on a Democratic ticket, it will reek of politics ... It’s such a bad message to send ... Why not step up and say who you voted for and why you regret it, if that’s the case.”

4. Say something at least. Republican strategist John Feehery, says “You don’t answer and you alienate everybody.” But he does note it’s a tricky balance. “You say yes and you alienate swing voters. You say no, and you alienate base voters.”

RELATED: Who did Grimes vote for in 2012?

5. Focus on the issues. Tharon Johnson, who ran campaigns for Reps. John Lewis and John Barrow in Georgia, and served as Southern regional director for Obama’s 2012 campaign, says “it’s clear that Democrats in red states have to walk a fine line.” He adds,” I think that Democrats in the South won't lose as many voters as they think if they say they voted for the President, the more they can focus on the issues, the better their chances of keeping the momentum in these final weeks and winning."