November 18, 2010

Did Religion-Related Campaign Ad Backfire in Kentucky?

The media’s post-election analysis of Republican Rand Paul’s victory in the race for Kentucky’s open U.S. Senate seat has focused heavily on the role of negative advertising, with several news accounts crediting Paul’s election at least in part to a TV ad by his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, which called Paul’s religious beliefs and policy ideas into question, and which may have backfired.

In a post-election interview with The Associated Press, Paul said he hopes the ad set a precedent that questioning a candidate’s religion is out of bounds. “I think that you shouldn’t attack a person’s faith, and I think it did backfire on them,” Paul said. “My hope is that when someone loses and that issue appears to have had an influence that maybe it discourages people from those attacks.”

Both candidates were perceived by substantial numbers of voters as mudslinging. In the Kentucky exit poll results reported by CNN, 49% of voters said Conway had attacked Paul unfairly, while 39% said Paul had attacked Conway unfairly.

In the days leading up to the election, fellow Kentucky Republican and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he thought the ad was the “turning point” in the election and that “Conway made a really big mistake by injecting religion into the campaign,” according to Politico. Also in October, Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill called the ad “very dangerous” for focusing on details from Paul’s college days and said it came “close to the line” of inappropriateness, according to the political blog Talking Points Memo. McCaskill also opined, however, that Paul’s response revealed him to be too “thin-skinned” for national politics.

Paul had responded strongly to the ad during the campaign, denouncing the ad at the start of an October debate. During the course of that debate, he referred to Christian Scripture and said that “those who stoop to the level of attacking a man’s religious beliefs to gain higher office, I believe that they should remember that it does not profit a man to gain the world if he loses his soul in the process,” according to the AP. Paul then declined to shake Conway’s hand at the conclusion of the debate, according to Talking Points Memo. The following day, Paul also issued his own religion-tinged ad, accusing Conway of “bear[ing] false witness” with his attacks on Paul, The Huffington Post reported.

When Paul called for an apology from Conway during the October debate, Conway declined to apologize and reiterated his questions about Paul’s beliefs, the AP reported. Conway’s ad was based on an August GQ article that reported on Paul’s membership, during his college years, in a Baylor University secret society called the NoZe Brotherhood, which allegedly performed pranks mocking the school’s Christian affiliation, including creating an idol called “Aqua Buddha.” After the GQ story was released, Paul denied that some of the alleged incidents ever took place, according to The Huffington Post.

According to a state-by-state analysis of data from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 67% of people in Kentucky say that religion is very important in their lives – significantly higher than the percentage of all Americans (56%) who say this. Additionally, 70% of Kentuckians say they pray at least once a day. According to exit polls, Paul received the vote of 73% of white evangelical or born-again voters.

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