In a campaign season that has seen its share of viciousness and name-calling, it’s one of the lowest moments. Now the blogosphere is abuzz with the effort to assign blame.
Sunday’s debate in Kentucky between Senate candidates Rand Paul and Jack Conway is being dubbed the “nastiest debate of 2010” by Talking Points Memo (which has compiled a video of “highlights”). At the end, Mr. Paul, the Republican candidate, was so angry he refused to shake Mr. Conway’s hand. He is considering whether to even participate in the final debate, scheduled for Oct. 25.
The root of the dispute: an alleged incident from Paul’s college days. A GQ article published two months ago claims that while a student at Baylor University, Paul was a member of a secret society called the NoZe Brotherhood that existed largely to torment the administration and enjoyed “tweaking the school’s religiosity.”
In particular, it quotes an anonymous woman who says that Paul and a friend tied her up one afternoon, tried to force her to smoke pot, and then took her to a creek, where they blindfolded her and forced her to bow down and worship “Aqua Buddha.”
Needless to say, it’s a story that Paul has denied, but Conway has tried to capitalize on it, bringing it up repeatedly during Sunday's debate, and running an ad about the incident.
"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?" asks a voice in Conway’s ad. "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?' "
Election 2010's unsavory moments
Conway's ad, while controversial enough to bring criticism from some fellow Democrats, is hardly the the most inflammatory this election season. Liberal firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson (D) of Florida dubbed his conservative opponent "Taliban Dan." And Senate majority leader Harry Reid has insinuated that his opponent, Sharron Angle, holds the views of a right-wing extremist.
New campaign finance rules have opened the door to more spending by third parties, ratcheting up the tension in various races. Nearly 90 percent of ads paid for by third parties are attack ads, the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Moreover, with twice as many competitive House races as usual – and Democrats increasingly desperate as polls show potentially huge losses from them on Nov. 2 – the tone of the election is turning nastier. Attack ads, after all, often work.
"Folks like to complain about negativity," Erika Fowler, an assistant professor of government and director of Wesleyan University's Media Project, told AP. "That said, we do tend to see movement [in the polls] in places where there is negativity."
'Have you no shame?'
During the Kentucky debate, Conway asked the same questions, at point saying, “When is it ever a good idea to tie up a woman and ask her to kneel before a false idol called Aqua Buddha?"
For his part, Paul shot back at Conway, accusing him of digging up decades-old charges from blogs rather than debating him on today’s issues.
“You know how we know you’re lying?” he asked Conway. “You’re lips are moving.”
At another point, he lashed out, “Jack, you should be ashamed of yourself. Have you no decency? Have you no shame?"
Paul describes himself as a pro-life Christian, and the ads contain serious charges for the Bible Belt voters he’s trying to appeal to. They’ve also been excoriated by many liberal commentators, who see them as below-the-belt attacks that – even if the Aqua Buddha story is true – likely exaggerates the importance of an irreverent college phase.
A few defenders, meanwhile, say that Conway is simply using the material available to him and commend him for “playing hardball.”
At this point, though it’s a close race, Paul continues to enjoy a solid lead over Conway. The most recent Rasmussen Poll has him up 11 points, though other polls have showed a narrower race.