Whatever was left of the gloves in the heated Kentucky Senate race came off tonight. In a televised debate from the University of Louisville, Republican nominee Rand Paul lashed out at his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway — even refusing to shake his hand at the end of the debate — saying to Conway at one point “you demean the state of Kentucky.”
For his part, Conway was not afraid to climb down into the muck and take Paul on. He accused Paul of “joining a group known for mocking Christianity” while the Republican was a student at Baylor University and called on Paul to explain why he once “tied a woman up and asked her to worship a false idol.”
The central issue fueling the vitriol between Paul and Conway was the Democrat’s tough new ad focusing on tales of Paul’s days at Baylor, which he attended for three years before leaving for medical school at Duke University. Paul claimed the ad questioned his Christian faith, which he said deeply offended him.
“He’s descended into the gutter,” Paul, who referred to himself as a “pro-life Christian” said. “Jack, you should be ashamed of yourself. Have you no decency? Have you no shame?”[TPM SLIDESHOW – TPM’s Day At ‘Fancy Farm’: Kentucky Pols Spar At Annual Political Kickoff Picnic]
Several profiles have referred to Paul’s membership in an irreverent student society known as the NoZe Brotherhood that was banned from Baylor for, according to school officials, mocking Christianity, a no-no at the Baptist university. A GQ profile last summer exposed some of Paul’s shenanigans with the group, including one occasion where he and a friend allegedly led a female student to a creek, tied her up and requested she worship “Aqua Buddha.”
Paul claimed the stories were not worthy of voter attention. Run on the issues of the day,” he told Conway. “Don’t make up stuff about me from college that you think you’ve read on the Internet blogs. Grow up.”
“it wasn’t from the Internet blogs,” Conway shot back. “It was on CBS News, it’s been in Politico, the Lexington Herald-Leader.”
Conway refused to say whether or not Paul is a “good Christian,” (as one of the debate’s moderators put it) but said that the ad was not about Paul’s faith.
“Values matter,” Conway said. “Why did he freely join a group known for mocking or making fun of people of faith? And secondly, when is it ever a good idea to tie up a woman and ask her to kneel before a false idol called Aqua Buddha?”
Paul never once answered those two questions, and attacked Conway throughout for, it seemed, having the audacity to ask them.
“You know how we know when you’re lying?” Paul said to Conway. “Your lips are moving. You’re accusing me of crimes. Do you know nothing about the process? You’re going to stand there and accuse me of a crime from 30 years ago from some anonymous source? How ridiculous are you? You embarrass this race.”
“You really have no shame, have you?” Paul added.
There were some substantive issues discussed, along the lines of what we’ve seen in past debates. Conway again attacked Paul over his suggestion that the Medicare deductible should be increased to help pay for the program’s costs, and Paul shot back with his standard attacks on Conway for not using his position as Kentucky’s attorney general to join other states suing the federal government over the Constitutionality of the new health care law. Paul claimed that there are constitutional problems with the law’s coverage mandates and other new programs.
In response, Conway said he was “always amused” to “get a lecture in constitutional law from a self-certified ophthalmologist” and said that he didn’t join the suits because there was no constitutional question when it comes to the new law.
“I’m not going to waste the resources of the Commonwealth of Kentucky on tea party politics,” he said.
Paul was the candidate most often of the defensive, however, both over the issues raised in Conway’s ad as well as more of his controversial past positions, such as Conway’s claim that Paul once advocated for an end to Social Security. At one point, a moderator asked him to give a yes or no answer to the question of whether Social Security is constitutional or not.
“I’ve never challenged it and I do not challenge the constitutionality of it,” Paul said.
The Republican did come with his own lines of attack as well, slamming Conway for his support of pro-union card check legislation and what he called “Obamacare.”
“I’d repeal the whole thing and start over,” Paul said of the health care bill.
In the end, though, the main takeaway from the debate was the level of ugliness this closely-contested Senate race has reached.
On one side there was Paul calling on Conway to “run a race as a man” and “stand up and be a man instead of just calling me names.”
On the other side there was Conway, who accused his rival of forcing a woman to “kneel before a false idol.”
The outcome of the Kentucky race remains up in the air, with polls showing Conway running slightly behind Paul as the contest enters its final days. One thing is certain however: the next two weeks in Kentucky will be anything but boring, and they’re likely to play host to some of the most brutal campaigning we’ve seen so far this year.
Late Update: We compiled the nastiest moments from last night’s debate into 2:44. Check it out.