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Democrats who run from Obama take a risk

By Donna Brazile
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Kentucky refused to say if she voted for Obama
  • Donna Brazile: Democrats who run from Obama may be taking a big risk
  • She says the Democratic base voters aren't going to look kindly on abandoning Obama
  • Brazile: Voters in Southern states will support candidates with progressive views

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake. Their holding Obama at arm's length deprives voters of a clear choice at the ballot box.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is a great candidate for the U.S. Senate and is running a solid campaign. But she made a mistake when she refused to answer the question from the Louisville Courier-Journal about which presidential candidate she voted for in 2012.

Grimes should have said she voted for President Obama and then gone on to explain her policy differences with him. By ducking the question, all she did was make news out of her refusal to give a routine answer to a routine question. If Grimes doesn't care for Obama or what he stands for or has accomplished, just say so.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

Like most Democrats running this fall, Grimes cannot win the election without the support of the Democratic base, and the Democratic base expects her to vote for a Democratic president against his Republican opponent.

Having forthrightly identified herself as a Democrat, Grimes can go on to explain what kind of Democrat she is -- a Clinton Democrat, a moderate Democrat, a Kentucky Democrat, a Blue Dog Democrat, or simply a woman who has shown voters that she is wise and if elected, will work hard to put their interest first -- not simply try to score partisan points.

Grimes is more than a match for incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell. She is every bit as tough as him, without his baggage of government shutdowns, his focus on making Obama a one-term president (and failing at it), and his love of extreme partisan politics.

She hit hard in the only debate of the race. "Sen. McConnell's 30-year record—it's gridlock, it's obstruction, it's extreme partisanship that's cost this nation a 16-day government shutdown. We can't afford to go in that direction. My record speaks for itself. I'm an independent thinker who does what's right for the people of Kentucky, not partisan politics."

The best McConnell seemed to be able to do was to mock her criticism of fabulous wealth: "Let me tell you: Her family has made more off the government in the last 10 years than I've been paid in a salary in all my time in the Senate," he said. OK, they are both wealthy, but what about the voters in Kentucky. Who's looking out for them?

McConnell, who is the self-acknowledged "Proud Guardian of Gridlock," tried to make his gun-to-the-head negotiating (My way, or I shove the U.S. over the fiscal cliff) appear as compromising. It didn't work, and that's largely why he's in trouble now. Voters truly want to believe that candidates will attempt to find common ground.

Grimes, by contrast, forthrightly supported Obamacare and Kentucky's governor, calling him "heroic" for taking on McConnell so Kentuckians can have the financial security and health care they need.

If there is one rule for Democrats this year it is, "Don't demoralize and demobilize the Democratic base." She may, in fact, never tell anyone her ballot vote. But, Grimes does herself, and her party, no good by sidestepping her party's leader.

By electing the libertarian Rand Paul to the U.S. Senate and a Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, who has implemented health care reform on the state level, Kentucky voters have proven that they are willing to elect politicians with a wide array of views.

Prior to the debate and Grimes' refusal to answer the question about who she voted for in the last presidential election, the polls have seesawed between McConnell and Grimes, but McConnell never breaks 50%. For an incumbent to be stuck below 50% is a danger sign, and Mitch McConnell is the ultimate incumbent -- a figure of Washington, D.C., not Kentucky.

If she is to survive the final weeks of campaigning, Grimes must pivot back to the issues and perhaps even make some real news by saying what she will do for six years if elected versus trying to compete with McConnell on what to do to stop President Obama from doing his job for two more years.

Grimes is 35 with a long career ahead of her. If she doesn't win this time, does she want the Democratic base to boycott her for decades to come? Bill Clinton started in Arkansas as a supporter of George McGovern, proving that a progressive Democrat can win in a conservative border state.

She is a fiercely independent, tough candidate and is capable of providing a positive case for how she will lead. But it's past time for Democrats running in these so-called red states to positively make a case for voters to elect them based on their agenda and priorities -- and not get caught up in trying to play these distancing games that could alienate the base voters they need to turn out on Election Day.

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