Paul loses polling edge in Kentucky Senate, but tea partiers going strong

Rachel Rose Hartman
September 27, 2010
Jack Conway and Ron Paul appear at an event in July.
Jack Conway and Ron Paul appear at an event in July.

Democratic campaign strategists have spent recent weeks arguing that momentum will swing their way soon: General-election voters will chafe at several tea party candidates  in high-profile midterm races once they see that they are "too extreme," the thinking goes.

But even as some of the tea party are flagging a bit in recent polls, in the main they continue to perform well in the election contests.

A new poll shows Republican tea party candidate Rand Paul losing his lead in the Kentucky Senate race, but he still remains competitive.

Democrat Jack Conway has cut into Paul's lead in the Kentucky Senate race and is now in a statistical tie with Republican, according to a new Courier-Journal/WHAS11 Bluegrass Poll.

The poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, finds Paul, an ophthalmologist and son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, leading the state attorney general 49 to 47 percent among likely voters, with 4 percent undecided. That puts Paul's lead within the poll's 4-point margin of error.

The last Bluegrass Poll, released at the start of September, showed Paul, a tea party candidate, leading 55 to 40 percent.

Jay Leve, SurveyUSA's chief executive officer, told the Courier-Journal that it's difficult to determine the causes of  the shift.  "Whether that is a result of genuine traction for [Conway], second thoughts about his opponent, or a newly raised consciousness among voters who a month ago were not focused on the contest, I am not sure."

The poll didn't delve any further into such explanations, simply presenting respondents with the horse-race query of whom they would vote for. But as Leve hinted, some voters could be having second thoughts about Paul.

Paul has been painted by Democrats as extreme for criticizing the Civil Rights Act, for opposing federal funding for state and local drug enforcement, and for other positions. New reports keep surfacing of Paul's past and his connections, which Democrats say show that he is too far outside the mainstream to win in November. On Friday, the Courier-Journal reported on Paul's membership in a conservative doctor's group that questions the link between HIV and AIDS and has also suggested that the president may have hypnotized voters.

Meanwhile, other tea party contests have defied Democratic forecasts by holding steady, or gaining momentum, in recent polling.

In what's shaping up as one of the country's most successful tea party challenges, Republican Marco Rubio's numbers continue to soar in the Florida Senate race. The latest polls show the tea party candidate with a 12-point lead over Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as a no-party candidate this fall.

And two tea party candidates who were hammered by Democrats in the primary for being "extremist" are holding strong: Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado. Angle has seen her lead shrink over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but she's continuing to poll well despite Reid's attempts to cast Angle's rhetoric as "crazy talk." And in Colorado, Buck continues to wage a competitive challenge to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet amid some recent poll fluctuations.

A stark exception may be tea party candidate Christine O'Donnell, who recently won an underdog bid for the GOP nomination in the Delaware Senate race. O'Donnell trails Democrat Chris Coons in many major polls of Democratic-leaning state voters -- and O'Donnell may soon face the added challenge of a write-in bid from her former GOP competitor, Rep. Mike Castle.

(Photo of Conway, left, and Paul: AP/Brian Bohannon)