In this election cycle, we've already seen one candidate run a religious attack ad only to subsequently lose the primary: In South Carolina, a day after coming in second to state Rep. Nikki Haley (R) in the gubernatorial primary, Rep. Gresham Barrett (R) released an ad in which he is described as a "Christian family man." Then, shortly before the runoff, his campaign was apparently pushing the story that Haley, a converted Christian, "still attends Sikh services occasionally with her parents and extended family." Haley went on to easily dispatch of Barrett, taking 65 percent of the vote in the runoff.
The most notorious 2008 religious attack ad was in North Carolina. Former Sen. Elizabeth Dole's attempt to take down challenger (and now Sen.) Kay Hagan (D) with her "Godless" ad in the last days before the election. The ad hits Hagan of attending a "secret fundraiser" hosted by the Godless Americans PAC. "Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money," says the narrator. "What did Kay Hagan promise in return?" At the end of the ad, Hagan's face is shown with a voiceover of a woman saying "there is no God."
Attorney Nikki Tinker challenged Rep. Steve Cohen in 2008, and earned herself a Keith Olbermann "Worst Person In The World" designation with her ad against the Jewish congressman that featured the following line: "Who is the REAL Steve Cohen anyway? While he's in OUR churches, clapping his hands and tapping his feet." The ad was pulled during the ensuing outrage from the media, and needless to say, Cohen defeated Tinker in the primary by a large margin. After winning the 2006 primary with just 31 percent of the vote, he trounced Tinker with 79 percent shortly after the ad.
In the summer of 2007, Louisiana Democrats ran an ad hitting Roman Catholic then Rep. Bobby Jindal (R), who was running for governor. "Most Americans believe we should respect one another's religion," said the announcer. "But not Bobby Jindal. He wrote articles that insulted thousands of Louisiana protestants. He has referred to Protestant religions as scandalous, depraved, selfish, and heretical." The ad refers back to articles Jindal wrote over a decade earlier. In October, Jindal went on to win a four-way race with 54 percent of the vote.
Turning back to Conway, experts agree that he may have gone too far. Damon Linker is a contributing editor at The New Republic and a senior writing fellow in the Center for Critical Writing at the University of Pennsylvania who just wrote a book called "The Religious Test." The book argues that candidates' religious beliefs should be open to public scrutiny. But, he says, the Conway ad and Paul's response ad are not the way to do it.
"I don't think religious beliefs should be off the table, but in this case I think it's pretty clear that these two ads are just pretty stupid," said Damon. "It doesn't raise any serious issues; it's just an attempt to slime him."
But despite the media response, Damon wouldn't rule out that the ad might work in Conway's favor. "Given that the campaign is in Kentucky, it's possible I suppose."