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Memo to Bennet and Conway, Meet Mr. Deeds

As Christianity and homosexuality exploded as big issues in the Kentucky and Colorado Senate races, I can only think back to a column I wrote for this space only a little more than a year ago (“In Virginia, Culture War Looks Very Much Alive on One Side,” Sept. 24, 2009).

In it, I noted that while a number of smart liberal observers — Center for American Progress fellow Ruy Teixeira, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Peter Beinart and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne — had proclaimed the end of the culture wars and a return to economic issues, cultural issues would return when the economy receded as an issue or would be resurrected by candidates whenever they thought those issues could help them.

I noted that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds turned to culture to redefine both his Republican opponent, Bob McDonnell, and the choice facing voters. For Deeds, the issues were McDonnell’s comments about women in the Republican’s 20-year-old thesis and his positions on abortion and birth control.

Deeds hammered away on those themes, particularly in moderate Northern Virginia, hoping to turn the race away from a referendum on President Barack Obama and jobs and back to issues and themes that could pull moderate voters to the Democratic nominee.

If you don’t remember what happened, Deeds got pummeled by McDonnell, even losing suburban Fairfax County to the Republican by almost 4,500 votes (51 percent to 49 percent).

Enter Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway and appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who have been having their own problems this year. They have been trailing their conservative tea party opponents narrowly and are trying to develop some momentum.

Like Deeds last year, Conway took the cultural fight to opponent Rand Paul in an already famous (and widely panned) TV spot that accused Paul of belonging to a “secret society” back in college that “called the Holy Bible a hoax” and “mocked Christianity and Christ.”

Whether the Democrat was trying to make Paul look radioactive to moderates or to peel highly religious, socially conservative voters away from him, the strategy seems odd in light of Deeds’ unsuccessful effort to undermine McDonnell’s character and make the race about cultural issues.

I don’t know whether the strategy will prove effective, but it’s difficult to imagine that socially conservative voters are going to see Conway, a moderate-to-liberal attorney from Louisville, as the cultural conservative in the race, or accept him as an honest messenger of culturally conservative concerns.

The situation is a little different in Colorado, where Bennet, his Democratic allies and members of the media have jumped on a comment about homosexuality offered by Republican Ken Buck during his “Meet the Press” debate.

Unlike Kentucky, where a Conway ad raised the issue, in Colorado it was Buck who brought the issue to the forefront with his answer to a question from NBC’s David Gregory. Still, the media reaction to Buck’s answer was a little over the top.

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