The U.S. Senate race in Kentucky is heading into November much like it started - a bare-knuckled contest with Democrats again trying to define Republican Rand Paul by dredging up his past.
The race has tightened over the past weeks, but such a strategy already appears to be backfiring as one of the biggest cheerleaders for Democratic candidate Jack Conway denounced his recent TV ad questioning Mr. Paul’s religious beliefs.
The 30-second ad that began airing last week says that while attending Baylor University, Mr. Paul was in a secret society that mocked Christianity and that he forced a female student to bow to a god named “Aqua Buddha.”
The Paul campaign posted a response ad Monday titled “False Witness,” with the narrator asking: “What kind of shameful politician would sink so low as to bear false witness against another man just to win an election?”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said Monday the Conway ad was “very dangerous” and “came close to the line” of being inappropriate.
“Candidates who are behind at the end reach, and sometimes they overreach,” she said on MSNBC-TV’s “Morning Joe” program. “This ad is a very dangerous ad because it reaches back to college. … I think the ad came close to the line.”
Mrs. McCaskill made the comments about 24 hours after she branded the “tea party”-backed Mr. Paul an “extreme candidate” and predicted Mr. Conway, the state’s attorney general, would come from behind to win the race.
“Ask Elizabeth Dole what might happen,” Republican strategist Elliott Curson said Monday about the Conway ad.
Mr. Curson was referring to a TV ad Mrs. Dole ran in the final weeks of her 2008 North Carolina U.S. Senate re-election bid that questioned Democratic challenger Kay Hagan’s ties to an atheist political group.
Ms. Hagan, who was an official at a Presbyterian church in Greensboro, defeated Mrs. Dole, who was seeking a second term.
“I believe this [also] could backfire,” Mr. Curson said. “It comes across as desperate. People will do anything when they’re trailing late in a race.”
Still, the Conway campaign is making no apologies, despite the reaction.
“Rand Paul can huff and puff all he wants, but he still hasn’t explained his actions: Why he joined a secret society after the president of Baylor University banned it because it ‘made fun of not only the Baptist religion, but Christianityand Christ,’ ” campaign official John Collins said Monday. “Rand ought to have the guts to … explain his actions to the people of Kentucky.”
Mr. Paul, a pro-life Christian and first-time candidate, also fired back Sunday night in the fourth of the candidates’ five scheduled debates.
He denounced the ad in his opening statements, and at the close of the debate would not shake Mr. Conway’s hand, saying, “I will not be associated with someone who attacks my religion. … This election will be about the future of America. Do you believe in the individual entrepreneur and the individual businessman or woman to create jobs?”
This is not the first time Paul critics have used the “Aqua Buddha” or have attacked a tea party candidate’s youthful indiscretions during the 2010 elections.
The college-prank story surfaced in August, with the anonymous alleged victim later recanting parts of the story.
The day after upsetting GOP establishment-backed candidate Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the Republican primary, Mr. Paul was grilled during national interviews about his views on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And liberals have repeatedly shown a TV clip of Delaware GOP Senate candidate and “tea party” favorite Christine O’Donnell saying 11 years ago that she “dabbled into witchcraft” while in high school.
Mr. Paul continues to lead in the race, 47 percent to 42 percent, according to poll averages. However, Mr. Conway has drawn closer in recent weeks, after trailing by double digits in some polls this summer and by 7 percentage points according to a mid-September poll by the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling group.
With 15 days remaining Monday before Election Day, Mr. Paul’s campaign reportedly took in $2.7 million for the three months ending Sept. 30, roughly $1 million more than reported by the Conway campaign. Mr. Paul reportedly has $1.4 million on hand, compared with roughly $1 million for Mr. Conway.