Kentucky voters got a look at some of the stark choices they will face on Nov. 2 in the final debate between Senate nominees Jack Conway (D) and Rand Paul (R). Though the debate — a quiet, sit-down affair on Kentucky public television — lacked some of the fireworks of the last meeting of the two men, there were plenty of barbs thrown around between Conway and Paul, and plenty of distinctions to be made between the two.
Perhaps the starkest came at the very end, when the debate moderator asked each nominee which Kentucky politician most inspired him. Conway named legendary Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford, who retired from the Senate after 25 years representing the Bluegrass State in the chamber. For a Democrat running for office in Kentucky, the choice was not a surprise.
Paul named the man whom he is vying to replace — the irascible Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, who has come to represent perhaps the most stubborn of the opposition to legislative action in the Senate. He hailed Bunning’s vote against TARP — which most economists at the time said was necessary to prevent an economic collapse the likes of which the country had never seen — as an example of heroism by Kentucky’s retiring junior Senator.
Bunning “stood up and said the bank bailout was wrong,” Paul said. “Many people can come later and say they would have opposed it, but he stood up and on principle voted the way he thought was right for Kentucky and I’m proud of him for that.”
Other principles on which Bunning stood in the past couple years: Saying “tough shit” to Senators trying to extend unemployment benefits; and reducing the amount of money Medicare pays out to doctors by 21%. That last move puts Bunning at direct odds with Paul, who has called for keeping Medicare payments high because doctors “should be allowed to make a comfortable living.”
Bunning, who publicly endorsed Paul back during the height of the Republican primary fight in April, shares a number of political markers with the GOP nominee to replace him. Paul and Bunning have both tangled with Kentucky’s senior Senator, Mitch McConnell, who leads the Republican caucus in the Senate. And both Paul and Bunning have run afoul of the rest of the Republican establishment as well. The difference is, where Bunning lost — he decided not to seek reelection this year due in part, he said at the time, to establishment leaders in the GOP preventing him from raising campaign funds — Paul won, handily defeating McConnell’s choice in the Senate primary.
The rest of Monday’s debate lacked much of the drama of the candidates’ Oct. 17 clash, when Paul told Conway “you demean the state of Kentucky” and refused to shake the Democrat’s hand after continued talk about Paul’s undergraduate years at Baylor University. Paul said that Conway brought it up as a way to “question” Paul’s Christian faith.
The words “Aqua Buddha” — which have come to exemplify Conway’s talk of Paul as a Baylor student — were not a part of the debate, but there was nonetheless plenty of ill-will remaining from the last clash.
Paul said Conway has “a simplistic world view” and called him “intellectually dishonest” for his characterizations of Paul’s views on increasing out-of-pocket costs for Medicare (Paul said he would consider it for younger people, but not for anyone currently on Medicare) and scrapping the current tax code (Paul admitted he supported the idea, but only after the nation’s finances are put in order.)
For his part, Conway accused Paul of “making things up” on the debate stage, like when Paul said that he had supported President Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
The debate broke little in the way of new ground, but it did offer some insights into the personal lives of each candidate. Asked about the last fiction book he read, Paul said The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Conway claimed he didn’t read much fiction and said the last novel he read was The Da Vinci Code.
The TPM Poll Average shows Paul leading the race by a margin of 47.1-42.6.
[Ed note: this post was edited after publication.]