Eight years ago, when Republicans were outside the White House, their political advertising in Tennessee largely stuck to a single formula.
"You would take a picture of the Democratic candidate. Put a picture of Barack Obama on one side," says Kent Syler, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University. "You know, throw in some Nancy Pelosi. And link them to that national ticket."
It worked. But Democrats are unlikely use the same playbook to turn Tennessee voters against the GOP.
"The Democratic strategy in attacking President Donald Trump has got to be different than the Republican strategy of attack Barack Obama," Syler says. "Tennessee is a red state."
This year’s elections are expected by many people to be a referendum on President Donald Trump, and that means some left-leaning voters are calling on candidates for public office to take a firm stance in opposition to his policies and administration.
But they won't find that staunch opposition among the leading contenders for Tennessee governor.
Democrats — and even Republicans who've opposed Trump in the past — are better off saying they're willing to work with him, Syler says.
And that is how the top six candidates from both parties present themselves. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, suggests it'd be impractical not to.
"He would be our president, and you know I've got differences with him," Fitzhugh says, "but I certainly would represent our state."
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean says he too would seek a "positive relationship."
Unsurprisingly, the Republican candidates also say they'd work with President Trump.
House Speaker Beth Harwell says she prays for the president and wants him to succeed for the good of the country. Businessmen Bill Lee and Randy Boyd endorse specific policies, like cutting taxes and government regulations.
And then, there's Congressman Diane Black, who offers support without hesitation. She touts specific legislation, including the federal budget, tax reform and repealing the individual health insurance mandate.
"So, I work with President Trump very, very well," she says.
Whoever emerges from the Republican primary is going to find themselves closely linked to the president. And with that in mind, Syler says it's wise for Democrats not to criticize Trump overtly. He's not polarizing enough in Tennessee for him to convert voters. But he outrages his critics enough that most will turn to the Democrats, without them having to say a word against him, Syler predicts.
"What you should say in a state that leans Republican, if you're a Democrat running, is that I'll work with Donald Trump when he's right and I'll oppose him when he's wrong," he says. "Just show that streak of independence.
"You're not going to run the numbers up there by attacking him. You're just going to lose some independents."
QUESTION: If elected governor, would you see yourself as an ally of the Trump administration? Why or why not?
Craig Fitzhugh: He would be our president, and you know I've got differences with him, but I certainly would represent our state. And, yes, we would have a relationship with that administration.
Karl Dean: Well, the way I look at this is, I'm running for governor of Tennessee. I'm not running against or for President Trump. I'm running to run the state of Tennessee, to manage the state in a way that's best for the people of Tennessee, and to move the state forward. I obviously would seek to have a positive relationship with the federal government and with the president of the United States. I think that would be beneficial to the state, but my interest would be to help Tennessee move forward.
Bill Lee: I support many of the things that President Trump has accomplished in his days. I'm grateful for tax reform, for regulation rollback, for appointment of justices, for border security. So, I am in support of much of what President Trump has done, and I'm grateful that he is accomplishing what, in many ways, Congress has not been able to for many years. … I will continue to support the work that he does that's beneficial to Tennesseans, certainly.
Diane Black: I support President Trump. I've worked, obviously, with him on two budgets that I did. I worked with him on repealing the individual mandate and also the tax reform. So, I work with President Trump very, very well.
Randy Boyd: Yes. The state of Tennessee is aligned with the Trump administration and focusing on reducing taxes, reducing the size of government, and it's something that, as a businessperson, I'm very aligned with.
Beth Harwell: Certainly, he's our president of the United States, and I support him, and I pray for him, and I want to see him successful. If he's successful, our nation will be successful.