Conway's implosion

mistakes also hurt other races

Herald-leader columnistNovember 7, 2010 

To paraphrase Mamie Van Doren's line from a classic after-shave commercial, there's something about an Aqua Buddha ad. Something that proved fatal to any hope Attorney General Jack Conway had of upsetting Rand Paul's tea cart.

More important for Kentucky Democrats, Conway's post-ad free fall from contender to double-digit loser in the U.S. Senate race may have cost the party in some down-ticket races.

For instance, Conway was expected to carry Fayette County by a solid margin. He didn't.

Whether his poor Fayette showing helped Republican Andy Barr give U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler the re-election scare of his congressional career is debatable. Republicans hung a target on Chandler's back for a variety of reasons, including his commendable but politically damaging vote for energy legislation with a "cap and trade" provision.

But a better performance at the top of the Democratic ticket might have been just the boost former County Clerk Don Blevins needed to unseat Republican state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr in a district where "faith" issues matter.

Some Republican down-ticket victories in traditionally Democratic areas may also have been impacted by Conway's implosion — an implosion most everyone outside the Conway camp attributes to his widely derided Aqua Buddha ad.

Thing is, Conway could have brought the alleged Aqua Buddha incident into the election conversation without all the damaging blowback from appearing to question Paul's faith. But it needed a lighter touch — perhaps a re-creation of Van Doren's 1960s Aqua Velva ads, with a woman purring, "There's something about an Aqua Buddha man" as an image of Paul morphs into Buddha.

Maybe you have the woman add, "something that isn't good for Kentucky." But not much more. Certainly, no picture of the Bible. No mention of faith. No reference to tying up a woman. Nothing that turns off voters. Just a humorous reminder of last summer's GQ article on the Aqua Buddha incident.

Then, you drop the ad in the campaign's final days to help clinch the deal, not two weeks out as Conway did with his ad. That just gave Paul time to react and regain control of the conversation.

Perhaps Conway would have had a shot under such a scenario. Perhaps. This was, after all, a rosy red election. But the way the Conway camp chose to use Aqua Buddha left him, and arguably some down-ticket Democrats, no chance.

However, the Aqua Buddha ad, as fatal as it proved to be, was hardly the only mistake the Conway campaign made. The handling of two visits by former President Bill Clinton, the current rock star of Democratic politics, still astounds me.

You don't bring Bubba to Kentucky twice to rally college students in the state's two largest cities. You bring Bubba to Kentucky to rally Democratic bubbas in the eastern and western regions of the state.

And if you do bring him to Louisville, you don't go to the University of Louisville campus. You take the guy sometimes referred to as the nation's "first black president" into the West End to rally African-American voters.

Jack Conway is an attractive, intelligent, capable and accomplished candidate. But all of those qualities couldn't overcome some really bad campaign decisions — not in a year that turned into a red storm rising.

So, Rand Paul now goes to the U.S. Senate, where he could quickly find himself as frustrated and disillusioned as the Jimmy Stewart character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (OK, I'm an old curmudgeon, so I have old points of reference.)

But unlike the Stewart character, Paul will not transform Washington with his passion and the power of his words. Even Republican members of the Washington establishment aren't interested in buying what he's selling in regard to such things as deficit spending and term limits. They just want to control the pork the deficit spending buys.

At least for awhile. Since Republicans are no more immune than Democrats to the ego trip of power, they will overreach just as they did when last in power and just as Democrats did the past two years.

In retrospect, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats may wish they had spent those years heeding the mantra of Clinton's 1992 campaign: "It's the economy, stupid."

Health care reform, energy legislation, financial regulation — important issues all. But for jobless Americans, there is just one important issue.

And although the party in power always takes the hit for a bad economy, Democrats might have lessened Tuesday's blow if they had responded more quickly and forcefully to the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

But given this nation's short attention span, the political pendulum will swing back their way just as soon as Republicans try American voters' patience again, as they inevitably will.

A final election note: Kentucky American Water did Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry no favors by implementing a 37 percent rate increase in the middle of his re-election campaign. Definitely qualifies as one of those "With friends like this ... " moments.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at (859) 231-3249, 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3249 or lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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