Memo to Bennet and Conway, Meet Mr. Deeds

by Stuart Rothenberg October 22, 2010 · 11:59 AM EDT

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.

“Ken Buck’s Debate Performance Gives Bennet Momentum, Heightens Interest In Colo. Senate Race,” the Huffington Post roared the day after the debate.

“Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck suddenly elevated the culture wars from minor player to center stage in the Senate race today when he compared homosexuality to alcoholism during a nationally televised debate,” the Denver Post’s Michael Riley wrote after the Sunday debate.

“Social issues leap into spotlight during Buck-Bennet debate,” was the headline in the Tribune of Greeley (Colo.).

“Weld District Attorney and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck strayed from his campaign’s focus on economic issues when he compared homosexuality to alcoholism Sunday in a nationally televised debate,” the Tribune’s Nate A. Miller wrote about the debate.

Buck, of course, didn’t intend on “elevating” cultural issues in the campaign. He didn’t intentionally interject homosexuality into the Senate race. He was responding to a question — a question that any experienced politician would have simply avoided.

It was Bennet’s supporters and members of the media — Buck undoubtedly would say that they are one and the same — who jumped on Buck’s ill-advised comment and interjected it into the campaign.

In a close race, this kind of self-inflicted wound can be fatal. Moderate voters who are unhappy with Obama and with the direction of the country may have a reason not to support Buck. After all, we aren’t talking ancient history here. That makes Buck’s goof potentially more important that McDonnell’s old writings or Paul’s behavior while in college.

But it isn’t clear that many voters are all that concerned with homosexuality or Buck’s views on biology this year. Jobs, the economy, government spending and Obama seem to be more important to the vast majority of voters. Just ask Creigh Deeds, if you can find him.

Still, the appearance of cultural issues in these two races is a reminder that percolating below the surface are strongly emotional social issues that simply won’t go away. Politicians won’t let those issues go if they can be of use, interest groups won’t let them disappear and journalists still love to write about them.

No, the culture wars aren’t over. Not as long as candidates, talking heads and the media find those issues useful.