How Aqua Buddha, shooting cap and trade (literally), and a witch ad decided three Senate races

Jon Ward Contributor
Font Size:

Aqua Buddha sunk Jack Conway, Joe Manchin came from behind after shooting (literally) the cap and trade bill with a rifle, and the witch ad put cement around Christine O’Donnell’s ankles (not literally) on her way down.

It’s not often that a TV ad decides a political contest. But in this wild and unpredictable cycle, TV ads went a long way toward deciding two contests within the last month of the election.

In Kentucky, Conway, the state’s attorney general, was gaining ground on Republican Rand Paul for weeks, attacking Paul for wanting to raise payment levels for Medicare recipients. GOP operatives were increasingly worried as they watched the race tighten.

But on Oct. 15, Conway released what will likely go down as one of the most amateurish attack ads in recent memory, using a two-month old anecdote about a joke Paul played on a friend 30 years ago in college to accuse the Republican of forcing a woman to “bow down before a false idol” named Aqua Buddha.

WATCH: Conway’s ad


The ad, based on a GQ article from August, backfired immediately. Liberals joined conservatives in denouncing it. The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait called it possibly “the ugliest, most illiberal political ad of the year.”

The culmination of Conway’s public humiliation came on Oct. 18, when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews publicly excoriated the Democrat in a lengthy and uncomfortably tense on-set interview in Kentucky in front of his own supporters.

“You’ve said,” Matthews said, reading from the Conway ad script, “‘[Paul] mocked Christianity and Christ.’”

“Should I ask you questions about the Bible, what you believe?” Matthews shot at Conway. “Should I start asking you questions whether you believe in the seven days of creation? Whether you believe in angels? Should I start asking politicians those questions? Personally I refuse.”

Conway never recovered. Paul began pulling ahead by several points in polls over the last week, and on Sunday, Public Policy Polling declared the race a done deal, putting the Republican up 55 to 40 percent.

“Over the last month of the campaign this went from being a relatively competitive race to a not so competitive one,” PPP’s Tom Jensen wrote. “The shift is more a reflection of Jack Conway’s image with Kentucky voters being shattered in the closing days.”

“Seven weeks ago [Conway’s] favorability split evenly with 36% of voters rating him positively and negatively alike. Now he’s very unpopular with only 34% of voters saying they like him and 52% expressing unfavorable opinions toward him.”

A few days before all this drama in Kentucky, Manchin, the Democratic governor of West Virginia, released an ad on Oct. 9 that was shocking to both Republicans and Democrats for its level of hostility to President Obama and his policies.

“I’ll take on Washington and this administration, to get the federal government off of our backs, and out of our pockets,” Manchin said. “I’ll repeal the bad parts of Obamacare … and I’ll take dead aim at the cap and trade bill.”

Manchin raised a rifle and shot a hole through an actual copy of the energy legislation passed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues, which has yet to be voted on in the Senate.

WATCH: Manchin’s ad

Manchin at that point trailed Republican John Raese by about four points in the Real Clear Politics average, and had been struggling to distance himself from Obama and the Democratic party.

The “Dead Aim” ad seemed to get the message across for Manchin, who a week later had eliminated Raese’s lead to draw even. He soon thereafter gained the lead. He’s now up by roughly four points, and is thought to be in commanding position for a win.

O’Donnell, the Republican Tea Party favorite in Delaware, was never considered a serious threat to Democrat Chris Coons. The night of O’Donnell’s surprising primary victory over Rep. Mike Castle, Republicans like Karl Rove were declaring her chances to be less than zero for a general election win.

Rove’s predictions were proved correct, however, when a string of odd statements by O’Donnell were released in the weeks after her primary win. One comment caused particular consternation in the O’Donnell camp.

“I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things,” O’Donnell said Oct. 29, 1999, in one of her many appearances as a Christian activist on “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.” “One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar and I didn’t even know it, and there was a little blood there, stuff like that.”

The comments, along with others about things such as her view that masturbation is wrong, dogged O’Donnell. So with the help of ad maker Fred Davis, she cut an ad that will go down in the history books as one of the strangest ever.

“I’m not a witch,” O’Donnell began, over soft piano music.

Enough said. And good night.

WATCH: O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” ad

Email Jon Ward and follow him on Twitter

This story originally said Manchin shot the cap and trade bill with a shotgun, not a rifle.