Kentuckians' attitudes on three key issues — President Barack Obama, health care reform and government spending — tilt Republican Rand Paul's way in the U.S. Senate race, according to a new Kentucky Poll.
The central tactic of Paul's campaign has been to link his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jack Conway, to Obama, and the numbers bear out the political wisdom of that move.
More than half — 56 percent — of likely voters in the statewide poll said they disapprove of Obama's performance as president. Only 38 percent said they approve of the job the president is doing, while 6 percent said they weren't sure.
One key reason is the Democratic president is simply more liberal than many voters in Kentucky, said political observers and people contacted in the poll.
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"He's a social and fiscal liberal, and I just don't think those policies work," said Michael Henry of Somerset, a senior-status judge with the state Court of Appeals who was called for the poll.
Henry said he has some concerns about Paul but will vote for him because of greater concerns about the Democratic agenda
Analysts said the shaky economy also undermines support for Obama, who is blamed even if the problems started before he took office.
"Approval always drops when the economy's doing poorly," said Laurie Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.
There were stark differ ences among Democrats and Republicans in the poll. Among Democrats contacted, 57 percent said they approved of Obama's performance and 34 percent disapproved; among Republicans, 87 percent disapproved and 10 percent approved.
John Prather, a Somerset attorney, was among the Democrats who defended the president's performance, noting that Obama inherited a financial mess.
"I think he's done a good job, given what he was handed," Prather said.
Obama's overall numbers in Kentucky were worse than in the country as a whole.
An average of seven polls this month showed that 49.6 percent of Americans disapproved of the job the president is doing, while 45.4 percent approved, according to Real Clear Politics.
Paul isn't the only one trying to convince voters his Democratic opponent would be a rubber stamp for Obama if elected. The president's lack of popularity is a factor in races around the country.
"It's not unique to Kentucky, but it might play better in Kentucky than some other states," Rhodebeck said.
The Herald-Leader commissioned the Kentucky Poll with WKYT-TV in Lexington and WAVE-TV in Louisville. Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. conducted the statewide telephone survey of 625 registered voters Oct. 18 and 19. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The poll found most Kentuckians favor Paul's position on a key issue Republicans have used to try to tie Conway to Obama — the health care reform law Congress approved this year.
Paul favors repealing the complex law and using market-based approaches — such as allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines — to fix problems in health care.
Of those surveyed in the poll, 52 percent said they favor repealing the law. Twenty-three percent said Congress should leave the law alone, and 22 percent said it should be modified. Only 3 percent said they weren't sure.
Conway has said that the law isn't perfect but that he would have voted for it.
One change he has called for is letting Medicare negotiate for bulk prices on prescription drugs to save money.
Outside groups have spent millions to criticize Conway for his support of the law.
The law includes provisions to bring health-insurance coverage to millions more Americans, stop insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, and close a gap in the Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
It would require many people to buy insurance or pay a penalty. Opponents argue that is unconstitutional.
One reason many people would favor repealing the law is uncertainty about potential costs, said Bryan Sunderland, vice president of communications for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
"You've got businesspeople out there not knowing what it's going to cost them, and that's a problem," he said.
Many people probably don't understand the law, and incessant criticism by right-leaning media has fed opposition to it, some Democrats said.
Patty Case, a Louisville factory worker contacted for the poll, said the health care law could use some changes, but she favors provisions to help more people get insurance.
Case, a Democrat, has insurance at work but wouldn't be able to get a policy individually without the new law because of a heart condition, she said.
"They can't afford insurance," she said of many people. "They need help."
Paul has made cutting federal spending another key theme of his Senate bid, and the poll shows a lot of support for that position among Kentuckians.
Of those contacted, 60 percent said the best way to help the economy in the short-term is to reduce the debt by cutting federal spending.
Only 28 percent favored increased spending aimed at creating more jobs. Twelve percent were unsure.
Dan Vincent, an electrical contractor in Owensboro who participated in the poll, said the issue is an important reason he plans to vote for Paul.
"Overall, the spending is out of control," said Vincent, a Republican.