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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Will Conway Ad Work or Backfire?

Quite a lot of buzz out there about Jack Conway’s recent video ad attacking Rand Paul for being stupid during his college years, with reactions ranging from righteous indignation to “Hey, personal history is fair game.”
Some progressives were offended by Conway’s ad, which attacked Paul for “mocking Christianity” As Jonathan Chait puts it in the New Republic, “The ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year may be this one, from Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway.” Morally, Chait is right. In terms of ad strategy, there is a little more room for argument.
Kos disagrees, explaining,

Personally, I see nothing wrong with it. Voters are less concerned with issues than values when casting their ballots, and for many voters, religion speaks to the candidate’s values. I may not like it, but it’s a democracy, and the notion that the source of a candidate’s values are off-limits is patently absurd…In a democracy, you have to sell yourself to the voters. In many places, religion is part of the package.

Kos points out that Paul made religion an issue by prattling on piously. “Remember, it was Rand Paul that tried to gin up the outrage machine when Conway said the word “hell” during his Fancy Farm picnic earlier this year.” Theda Scopkol, quoted here in TPM, agrees that Conway was not out of line:

I have a real problem with all the prissy condemnations coming from liberal commentators about Conway’s ad on Rand Paul’s youthful playing with contempt for Christianity. People are acting as if it is some kind of political sin to point out to ordinary Kentucky voters the kind of stuff about Paul’s extremist libertarian views that everyone in the punditry already knows. This does not amount to saying that Christian belief is a “requirement for public office” as one site huffs. It is a matter of letting regular voters who themselves care deeply about Christian belief know that Paul is basically playing them. No different really than letting folks who care about Social Security and Medicare know that Paul is playing them…

The ad was pretty cheesy. I hate the snarky voice-over thing, which seems to be in fashion this year for ads across the political spectrum. Conway was only down 5 points or so, and the race was most likely going to narrow some. Why bet the whole ranch on a pair of Jacks? I tend to agree with Larry J. Sabato’s take, which is that the ad is probably a net negative for Conway. “Mainly, it’s changing the subject to less helpful issues…I’d be surprised if this brings Paul down,”
But, who knows, the ad may do some good, as well as damage, by implanting the meme that Paul’s is a little too weird for Kentucky. It may be a game-changer, if it encourages the media, which after all, loves personal scandals, to press Paul to explain the pot-kidnapping-bondage-aqua-Buddha thing. My guess is he will dodge the media like he did Meet the Press for the next couple of weeks. It could be a wash.
But Conway should not apologize. Stick with responses that criticize Paul for his extremist ideas. Project certitude and strong conviction that Paul is too crazy for Kentucky. Keep attacking Paul for his idiotic policies, not his college pranks, and do it with sharply-worded soundbites, not rambling critiques.
Regardless of the outcome, the ad will probably be credited with making the difference, even though it may not be the case. Generally, however, I would argue against holding opponents accountable for their college behavior. Not too many of any political party could stand such rigorous scrutiny.

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