Kentucky Senate Race Heats Up Over Attack Ad

Democrats have a good chance to pick up the seat held by Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who's retiring. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat, is running against Republican Rand Paul. Conway's recent attack ad highlights Paul's involvement in a college prank at Baylor University some 25 years ago.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In this election season, we've been looking at many of the most competitive races, and today we examine Kentucky's Senate contest. Republican Jim Bunning is retiring, and it's one of the few places where Democrats feel they have a fighting chance to pick up a seat. The race is between Republican Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, and Democrat Jack Conway. The contest has heated up over an ad Conway is running about an episode from Paul's past.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports from Louisville.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It all goes back to a story about a college prank published by GQ last summer in which an anonymous woman alleges that in 1983, she was tied up and driven by Rand Paul and some of his buddies at Baylor University to a creekside. She says she was told to bow down and worship their god, called Aqua Buddha. The issue is now showing up in a Jack Conway ad.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

NARRATOR: Why was Rand Paul a member of a secret society that called the Holy Bible a hoax? That was banned for mocking Christianity and Christ? 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? Why does Rand Paul now want to end all federal faith-based initiatives, and even end the deduction for religious charities? Why are there so many questions about Rand Paul?

NAYLOR: The ad prompted a visibly angry Paul to lash out at Conway during a debate Sunday night, declining the shake Conway's hand or even make eye contact with his opponent at the debate's end.

Mr. RAND PAUL (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Kentucky): You know, Jack, you know how when we tell you're lying, is when your lips are moving, OK? You're accusing me of crimes. You're just - do you know nothing about the process? You're going to stand up there and accuse me of a crime for 30 years ago from some anonymous source? How ridiculous are you? You embarrass this race.

NAYLOR: And now Paul has a response ad up.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Now Jack Conway is attacking Rand Paul's faith. Rand Paul keeps Christ in his heart and in the life he shares with his wife and three boys. Don't be fooled by Conway's desperate attack. It's shameless, disgraceful, gutter politics at its worst.

NAYLOR: Conway's ad has also made some Democrats uncomfortable. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri told an interviewer she thought it was very dangerous. Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth of Kentucky, engaged in his own reelection campaign, said he wouldn't have done it.

Others find it kind of funny. Former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia made a campaign stop with Conway at the Louisville American Legion Post the other night.

Mr. MAX CLELAND (Former Democratic Senator, Georgia): I really came here for spiritual enlightenment, seeking that from Aqua Buddha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NAYLOR: Speaking outside the American Legion Post, Conway defended the spot, saying values matter.

Mr. JACK CONWAY (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Kentucky): No, I'm not questioning his faith. I'm questioning his actions. I think you have to keep in mind that the president of Baylor University banned this group because they were, quote, "making fun of Christianity and Christ." And I think the question has to be answered - and Rand Paul won't answer it - and that is: why did he join, why did he voluntarily join, an organization who was known for mocking people of faith?

NAYLOR: Whether Conway's ad is a last-minute hail Mary from a candidate behind in the polls or a canny stroke aimed at drawing attention to his candidacy, Kentucky voters appear not to think much of it, and it's unclear whether it's changed many minds.

(Soundbite of glass clanging)

NAYLOR: At Check's Cafe in the Germantown neighborhood of Louisville, Paul Higgins, a retired factory worker, says he's still voting for Paul and dismisses Conway's ad.

Mr. PAUL HIGGINS (Retired Factory Worker): He's getting desperate with the mud slinging. That's why he's coming out with them ads. You know, we all did something, you know, when we were younger. And this was more or less in college, when kids and all did pranks and everything. No, it's - he's not my man.

NAYLOR: And between bites of his cheeseburger, Rick Morehead says he's still voting for Conway, despite his feelings about the ad.

Mr. RICK MOREHEAD: Right, even though - but I did think that's small of him, and I don't agree with either of that. You know, I think that's small. And that's - I think all this thing about religion is absurd.

NAYLOR: Polls have shown Paul with a small, but steady lead over Conway. Lost in the debate about Aqua Buddha is a discussion about some of the other issues in Kentucky, where unemployment is at 10 percent. There are some clear philosophical differences between Conway and Paul, who shares many of the Libertarian views of his father, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Rand Paul wants to sharply reduce the role of government. Conway comes from a traditional Democratic mold. But neither candidate seems too interested in talking about those issues at the moment.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Louisville.

(Soundbite of music)

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