SHELBYVILLE, Ky. – Emily Daniel, a 26-year-old 2008 Barack Obama supporter, is not the kind of voter that Democrat Jack Conway can afford to lose in his scorched-earth Senate race in which he trails in the polls. But Daniel, who works in the Shelby County Courthouse and is married to a farmer, is reluctantly voting for Tea Party favorite Rand Paul.
A major reason for her ideological zigzag is the vicious Conway ad (maybe the roughest of Campaign 2010) that accuses Paul of worshipping in his college days a false god named "Aqua Buddha." As she explains, "I really thought it crossed the line."
Daniels was picking up lunch Thursday at McKinley's Deli, a small-town meeting place on Main Street that has everything (fresh baked bread and tasty chili) except a colorful slogan. Tired of the moral fisticuffs over the Conway commercial ("Why did Rand Paul once tie a woman up, tell her to bow down before a false idol and say his god was Aqua Buddha?"), I wanted to judge the spot by the most cynical standards of politics. Click play below to watch the ad:
So I came to Shelbyville – the heart of an agricultural and exurban county east of Louisville (John McCain won 62 percent here in 2008) – to test whether the Aqua Buddha ploy was winning Conway votes among its target audience of social conservatives. The tentative verdict after my 15-person impromptu lunch-time canvass at McKinley's is that the commercial is the God ad that failed.
Karen Crouch, a secretary for the local school system who is on the cusp of retirement age, said, "The ad's pushing me towards Rand Paul. It's such a personal attack and he did it because Rand Paul had a lead in this race. Conway's desperate." Crouch, who was having lunch with her husband Larry, is a registered Republican with an independent streak. When I asked her about her 2008 presidential vote, she said, "Well, it wasn't McCain."
Rand Paul – the son of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul – offers Democrats a target-rich environment in this conservative state. In the heady aftermath of his decisive May primary victory, Paul waffled on whether he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Aqua Buddha stunt (which Paul now denies ever occurred despite press interviews with the woman he allegedly victimized) seems odd, even for a college student.
But many Paul voters already know that they will not be voting for a generic senator from Central Casting. "The ad was an effort to label Paul as off the reservation and a little weird," said Tyler Long, the vice president of a local bank. "But we already knew that." Yes, the 37-year-old Long ("I'm a reliable Republican with Tea Party sympathies") is unequivocally backing Rand Paul.
Though random voter interviews are a crude barometer, it does seem telling that the only person at McKinley's at all upset by Paul's long-ago and immature connection with Aqua Buddha was a loyal Democrat. "I don't want anyone who worships idols," said Morris Adams, who is old enough to have served in General Patton's army during World War II. "We've got a lot of nice churches in this town."
The Conway campaign candidly admits that it aired the Aqua Buddha attack ad last week to change the conversation away from Barack Obama, who has always been unpopular in Kentucky (winning only 41 percent in the state in 2008). The Democratic strategy is that anything that focuses on Rand Paul himself works -- even if the GOP Senate nominee countered with a religiously themed response. The Paul spot ends with the line, "What kind of shameful politician would sink this low to bear false witness against another man just to win an election?"
Political mavens who voluntarily watch campaign commercials sitting at their computers or during cable TV discussions get a distorted picture of the television ad wars. Armchair media consultants tend to overlook the concept of ad clutter – and how campaign spots blur in the minds of the voters. A commercial has to be shrill and different to be noticed this late in the campaign season when every candidate, party committee and interest group is jostling for the attention of the voters.
By my unofficial count, during the 5:00 news hour Thursday on WAVE, the NBC affiliate in Louisville, 30 separate 30-second political spots were aired for Kentucky and Indiana elections. Put another way, one quarter of the broadcast (15 minutes) was devoted just to campaign ads.
In addition to Conway's Aqua Buddha attack and the Rand Paul response (both ads were shown twice), viewers were pummeled with commercials for: Louisville's mayoral candidates, contenders for county judge, two incumbent congressman and their rivals (mostly involving Democrat Baron Hill's tough re-election fight in southern Indiana), the Indiana Senate race (underdog Democrat Brad Ellsworth bought two spots) and, yes, two all-important races for state representative in Indiana.
If you got bored reading that list, imagine what it was like to actually watch all these commercials. Other than a gauzy positive for Louisville Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth (and low-key spots for two Kentucky judicial candidates), every other commercial (27 of them) was entirely or partly negative. Many of these were attack ads from party committees (the Republican Senate Campaign Committee was on the attack against Conway) and from pro-Republican interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce.
Out-gunned about three-to-one on Kentucky television, Jack Conway unleashed a nuclear suitcase bomb against Rand Paul. The radioactive Aqua Buddha ad was crude, ethically questionable – and, judging from the reaction at McKinley's Deli, ineffective. But say this about the Conway campaign -- it did find a way (one that hopefully few candidates will ever emulate) to cut through the ad clutter.
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