By Jack Brammer and Bill Estep – firstname.lastname@example.org
With less than two weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election, Republican Rand Paul holds a slim lead over Democrat Jack Conway in their race for the U.S. Senate, a new Kentucky Poll shows.
Paul, a favorite of the Tea Party movement whose campaign has focused on limited government, holds a 5 point lead over Conway among likely voters — 48 percent to 43 percent, with 9 percent undecided.
“That’s not a great majority of a lead for Paul but I believe it’s almost impossible for a conservative Republican to lose in Kentucky this year,” said national political analyst Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The telephone survey of 625 likely Kentucky voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. It was conducted on Monday and Tuesday of this week by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C. on behalf of the Lexington Herald-Leader, WKYT-TV in Lexington and WAVE-TV in Louisville.
Other political observers said the relatively high level of undecided voters in the poll underscores the fluidity of the race.
The number of undecided voters could reflect uncertainty about a TV ad Conway launched last weekend regarding Paul’s behavior in the 1980s as a member of a secret society at Baylor University called the NoZe Brotherhood, said University of Louisville political science professor Jasmine Farrier.
The ad, which has gotten mixed reaction from many Democrats, raised questions about Paul’s religious beliefs and referred to an anonymous woman who alleged Paul tied her up and forced her to worship a god called “Aqua Buddha.”
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon making his first bid for public office, has said the accusations are “all lies” and “completely untrue.” The anonymous woman, who has been quoted by The Washington Post and GQ magazine, has disputed Paul’s assertion.
Conway, the state’s attorney general, still has a chance to win the race, Farrier said, but he needs to find issues to attract swing voters and make sure his base of Democratic supporters turns out at the polls.
“If Conway’s supporters become upset with this week’s ad, they might stay at home and not come out to vote,” she said.
Other observers see the issue differently. Despite criticism about the ad, “Conway now needs to stay on the attack,” said Joe Gershtenson, director of Eastern Kentucky University’s Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement.
“To win this race, I think he has to tear Rand Paul down as an extremist who is out-of-touch with Kentucky,” he said.
Paul must cut into the Democratic base to win, and he appears to be succeeding. Paul garnered the support of nearly one-fourth of Democrats.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, 1.62 million to 1.07 million. About 200,000 Kentuckians are registered independent or with other parties.
Only 65 percent of Democrats stuck with Conway in the poll, compared to 81 percent of Republicans who sided with Paul.
The poll showed 48 percent of independents backing Paul and 40 percent going with Conway.
Betty Tucker, a retired businesswoman in Henderson, was among the poll participants who said they will remain loyal to their Democratic Party registration and vote for Conway.
“I know too many Republicans and Tea Party people who think you can’t be a Democrat and a Christian,” she said. “I tell them I’m both and am good at both.” However, Tucker said she disliked Conway’s controversial ad about Paul’s college days.
“Are you going to label a person bad for stealing a Tootsie Roll at 3 years old?” she said. “But I understand why Conway did it. Everyone else is throwing mud. You have to, too.”
Republican Charles Milburn, a retired farmer in Nelson County who participated in the poll, said the ad “shows how low-down Conway is and that he will do anything to get that Senate seat.”
Milburn said he would vote for Paul “because he has more common sense than Conway. He knows government is too big and costly.”
Although both candidates and a host of outside groups have been airing negative ads in the race, Paul is viewed favorably by 11 percent more voters than Conway. Only 31 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Conway, compared to 42 percent for Paul.
The poll showed Conway trailing Paul in four of the state’s six congressional districts.
Conway led Paul in Louisville’s 3rd District, where Conway lives, 54 percent to 39 percent. He also held a 51 percent to 42 percent lead in Central Kentucky’s 6th District.
Those two urban-dominated districts are the only ones in the state with Democratic U.S. representatives —John Yarmuth in Jefferson County and Ben Chandler in Central Kentucky.
Conway “doesn’t have a prayer” if he fails to carry the 3rd and 6th districts by solid margins, Gershtenson said.
Paul’s best showing was in Northern Kentucky’s 4th District, where he led 54 percent to 33 percent. That district is home to Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, who is retiring.
Paul also led by more than 50 percent in two other districts: Western Kentucky’s 1st District and south-central Kentucky’s 2nd District, which includes Owensboro and Bowling Green, where Paul lives.
Conway needs to concentrate on the 1st and 2nd districts, Gershtenson said.
“They are typically Democratic in nature, though quite conservative,” he said. “Conway has to excite Democrats there to come out for him.”
In the 5th District, which covers Eastern Kentucky and parts of southern Kentucky, a traditional GOP stronghold, Paul led Conway 49 percent to 38 percent.
Among men, Paul outperformed Conway 55 percent to 39 percent. Women favored Conway 46 percent to 41 percent over Paul.
U of L’s Farrier said Republican candidates generally have done better among men than women since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president.