When Kentucky taxpayer advocate Rand Paul defeated the GOP establishment candidate in last summer’s U.S. Senate primary, the Democrats thought blood was in the water. Clearly an unconventional candidate Paul--the son of legendary libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul--was immediately written off by the dominant political establishment as too extreme, too far outside the mainstream of U.S. political thinking to have a shot at winning the general election.
Then something strange happened. Paul’s clear, concise message about the need to reduce the size and scope of the federal government caught on--not just with voters in Kentucky but with voters all across the country.
After an admittedly rocky start, in November of 2009 Paul started to open up a lead in the polls--a lead he has maintained to this day. The latest Pollster.com average has Paul with a 47.3 percent to 40.6 percent lead over his opponent, state Attorney General Jack Conway--with the trend lines making it look like Paul is just barely beginning to put the race away.
The Democrats’ last best hope seemed to be to recreate Paul’s image as an angry spoilsport. “A debate filled with unabashed personal attacks concluded Sunday night with Republican Rand Paul briskly brushing past Democrat Jack Conway, refusing to shake the hand of an opponent who raised questions about his religious beliefs,” the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jack Brammer wrote at the start of his column following the fourth of the five debates scheduled between the two candidates.
Except that headlines are deceiving. The reason for the animosity is an ad Conway currently has on the air that questions Paul’s religious beliefs. And the consensus seems to be that Conway is the one in the wrong.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent to reporters Tuesday a collection of political and media comments about the ad that is, in a word, devastating. Among those worth noting:
The Louisville Courier-Journal notes that political analysts view Conway’s ad as an act of desperation as he trails Dr. Paul in public polls. Political analysts said Monday that Jack Conway’s television ad about Rand Paul’s involvement with a secret society while in college--an ad that prompted angry exchanges during a debate Sunday--indicates Conway believes he is still behind and must use unconventional attacks to catch up.
Jonathan Chait, a blogger with the New Republic, called the Conway ad “the ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year.” He also wrote that “the trouble with Conway's ad is that it comes perilously close to saying that non-belief in Christianity is a disqualification for public office. That's a pretty sickening premise for a Democratic campaign.”
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said running an ad that has to do with an opponent’s religious views can be perilous. “I think it’s a gamble,” she said. “But obviously one that they felt they had to take.”
“The most despicable ad of the year.” “The ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year.” Even the reliably liberal Chris Matthews of MSNBC gave Conway grief for the ad, saying, as the NRSC put it, “it was pretty flimsy for a candidate to base his entire campaign on an anonymous source making allegations of questionable, but not necessarily illegal, behavior that is three decades old--and asked, to no clear answer, whether Conway ever did anything out of line while in college.”
These are not the kinds of words a candidate who is running behind in what was supposed to be a winnable race needs to hear in the closing days of an election. It also shows just how desperate the Democrats may be to keep the Senate from getting close. The latest polls have it on the edge, ready to tip one way or the other.