Aqua Buddha Comes Back To Haunt Jack Conway In Kentucky

Jack Conway's "Aqua Buddha" ad has come back to haunt him in the polls, and may become the act that seals his fate on Election Day.

Jack Conway’s decision to run an ad focusing on Rand Paul’s college years, which was perceived by many as questioning Paul’s Christianity, has apparently hurt him quite substantially in the closing week of the Kentucky Senate campaign:

A series of new polls show that Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway’s now-infamous “Aqua Buddha” ad may have dramatically backfired and turned scores of wavering voters towards tea party favorite Rand Paul.

Conway’s disapproval ratings have jumped dramatically over the past week, a trend that makes it an even steeper challenge for the state attorney general to knock off Paul in the race to succeed GOP Sen. Jim Bunning. And the sharp turn-of-events has come in the immediate aftermath of Conway gaining serious traction in the race, when he appeared to have effectively moved it into a dead heat after waging a series of attacks against Paul’s views on Medicare.

Now with less than a week to go until Election Day, it seems unlikely that the contours of the race will change once again – though there was new drama on Monday when, outside a Paul-Conway debate, a Paul supporter appeared to have stomped on the head of a liberal activist. Both men have denounced the incident, but Conway has called on Paul to apologize to the victim.

While people close to Conway say they’re still optimistic, public polling shows Paul as a clear favorite in the final days of the campaign. Some of the state’s most astute political analysts believe Conway’s ad may have sealed his defeat. The ad questioned Paul’s religious convictions in referencing his youthful mocking of the Southern Baptist-backed administration at his alma mater, Baylor University.

“I think Conway made a really big mistake by injecting religion into the campaign,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told POLITICO. “It was the turning point.”

As I noted yesterday, Public Policy Polling has Paul leading Conway by thirteen points in the first poll to come out since the ad controversy has had time to make its way into the public consciousness, but most importantly it is clear that the ad has hurt Conway and had virtually no impact on Paul:

There’s been no change in Rand Paul’s favorability numbers in the wake of the controversial ‘Aqua Buddha’ ad. He’s at a net +6 (49/43), virtually identical to his +5 (45/40) a month ago. Jack Conway has seen his numbers plunge though. Where before voters split evenly in their assessments of him, giving him a favorability of 36/36, they now view him mostly in a negative light at -13 (39/52).

There’s little doubt the ad has backfired. 56% of voters say they think it was inappropriate to only 15% who think it was alright. Even Democrats feel by a 41/24 spread that it crossed the line and perhaps relating back to Conway’s huge new deficit with independents they think it was wrong by a 68/7 spread.

Similarly, a new Fox News poll has Paul ahead by seven points and shows the favorable/unfavorable numbers decidedly not to Conway’s advantage:

  • Rand Paul 48% Favorable/41%  Unfavorable
  • Jack Conway 38% Favorable/51% Unfavorable

And those numbers are further bolstered by an internal poll:

An internal GOP poll obtained by POLITICO paints a stark picture for Conway as well. According to the telephone survey of 1,200 people conducted Oct. 21, 83 percent of respondents had heard about the Aqua Buddha ad – and 69 percent believed it went too far, including 50 percent of Democrats. And as a result, 45 percent of voters were more likely to vote for Paul after viewing the ad, compared to 26 percent who were less likely, while 28 percent said it made no difference. The poll had a 3 percent margin of error.

As I noted at the time the ad controversy was brewing last week, Conway’s ad was both dishonest and troublesome in that it distorted the facts about Rand Paul’s faith and his position on policy issues like tax exemptions for religious institutions, and insinuated that someone who is not a believing Christian is not fit for public office. It’s the same insinuation that Elizabeth Dole made two years when she unleashed the so-called “Godless Americans” ad on her opponent Kay Hagen:

The ad was widely denounced and Hagan even took the extraordinary step of filing suit over the ad. In the end, like Rand Paul, Hagan’s poll numbers actually went up after Dole ran the ad and she ended up defeating Dole in a surprise that many attributed to negative reaction to the tone the campaign had taken in the final weeks.

Will the same thing happen in Kentucky? We’ll find out on Tuesday, but based on the polls so far it looks like the only person who’s been hurt by Jack Conway’s attack ad is Jack Conway.

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dodd says:

    No, it won’t be what cost him the election. PPP is right — he was headed for defeat and needed to do something to change the game. He just chose the wrong something.

    I expect he’ll get a small uptick from the hysteria over the head “stomping” incident (he’s certainly straining for it), but it won’t be enough. As my friend at RGA told me a couple of weeks ago, that cake is baked.

  2. I think you’re probably right.

    Conway needed to do something that would change the direction of the race and he clearly thought the Aqua Buddha ad would be it. In that sense, the Dole analogy is probably even more apt. Libby Dole was trailing Hagan long before she ran that ad, and she obviously thought that the “Goddless Americans” ad would change the tenor of the race. She gambled and lost and I think Conway will too.

  3. ponce says:

    Conway’s campaign manager, Jonathan Drobis, seems to be a political newbie.

  4. jKR says:

    Both fights at the Paul/Conway debate should be denounced, however, not just the one involving the Rand Paul supporter. Where is Jack Conway’s outrage on behalf of the female Rand Paul supporter who had her surgical boot stomped on by a Conway supporter, opening the incision and causing her to file an assault charge?

    Differences of opinion don’t justify violence on EITHER side, however, only one side is being aired.

  5. sam says:

    I dunno about only “one side being aired”. Google ‘paul surgical boot’, lotsa hits (but it seems to be the same story — same wording — being repeated all over the place). Query: is it not possible that the lady’s foot was just stepped on accidently? I ask this because, as I said, there only seems to be the one story, no video, no pictures, being repeated over and over. Does anyone have any information on the charge different from the one mentioned in the Kentucky Post?

  6. sam says:

    Evidently, she’s not at all sure:

    [Lexington, Kentucky Division of Police Public Information Officer Sherelle] Roberts confirmed that a second assault report was filed Monday night by a woman who said her foot was stepped on in a crowd outside the debate venue before the event. In that case, Roberts said, the victim “was unsure if it was purposeful or accidental.” [my emphasis]

    Local media reports said the woman who filed the second assault report was a Paul supporter, but Roberts was unable to confirm that information. Roberts said that the woman had her foot in a cast from recent surgery and that her foot was re-injured in the incident.