It’s been a bizarre mid-term election full of mama grizzlies, teen witches and candidates telling each other to “man up” — even if they’re female. And so, in Kentucky, America’s economic malaise has come a poor second of late to scuttlebutt that Rand Paul, the GOP Senate candidate, once bound a female student as part of a college prank and ordered her to worship a false God named “Aqua Buddha”.

When Democrat Jack Conway marshalled the rumors into an attack ad, a furious Paul accused him of “bearing false witness” against a fellow Christian. “You demean the state of Kentucky,” he bellowed theatrically. But any hopes for a dust-up at Monday night’s final debate in Lexington were dashed when a strangely zen-like Paul showed up.

It’s a simple rule of thumb in politics: the candidate reduced to flinging mud at the wall in the hope that something sticks is the one who’s losing. And two fresh polls, showing Paul, the Tea Party hero, ahead by either seven or 13 points (take your pick), and more importantly, plummeting favourability numbers for Conway, are now proof that Aqua Buddha has almost certainly boomeranged.

This Kentucky derby is in many ways a microcosm of Democratic troubles across the country. In one corner, you have the “extreme” Tea Party candidate whose wacky comments scare moderate voters and make races that Republicans should win uncomfortably close. It’s why Democrats are now the unbackable favourites in Delaware, still a chance to hold Colorado — and why Harry Reid, the increasingly corpse-like Senate majority leader, manages to cling on in Nevada.

In Paul’s case, it’s not his stances on m-sturbation or witchcraft that are the problem, just some woeful old foot-in-mouth in which he appeared to support winding back the Civil Rights Act because its anti-discrimination provisions were too onerous on small business.

Paul, of course, is no segregationist. He’s an economic libertarian. And in any other election year, it’s this quality that would have him in trouble. Kentucky, quite simply, isn’t the best fit for a libertarian with a doctorate (albeit in ophthalmology). Folks, for all their social conservatism, are struggling economically. The farmers rely on lavish federal subsidies — more than $US265 million in 2009. And Paul’s didactic tendency to float uncomfortable ideas such as means-testing social security or requiring Medicare patients to pay a $2000 deductible towards their coverage would ordinarily provide rich fodder for a Democratic opponent.

So why has Conway been reduced to stunts? Because Moses himself couldn’t part the seas for a Democrat in a state where President Obama’s approval is a radioactive 35%. On Monday night, when Conway attempted to bring up Medicare and questioned whether the elderly could afford a $2000 deductible, Paul’s rejoinder was devastating. “Perhaps they can’t afford President Obama’s trillion dollar spending, President Obama’s debt … the leader of your party, the guy you supported in the primary, your kind of Democrat, you wanted President Obama, is a disaster for our country. He’s bankrupting us and you sit blithely over there and support his policies.”

This is the pickle Democrats everywhere are in. Their signature $800 billion stimulus may have averted a greater calamity but unemployment is still 9.6% (or 10.1% for that matter in Kentucky). And the various benefits from Obama’s health-care changes that Conway cited so painstakingly — mammogram screenings, coverage for existing conditions, children able to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26 — have been well and truly drowned out by the Republican narrative of out-of-control spending and debt.

In neighbouring West Virginia, Democrat Joe Manchin stands a chance of entering the Senate because he has renounced his support of “Obamacare” and taken to producing ads in which he literally fires bullets into cap-and-trade legislation. By contrast, Jack Conway looks set to lose to Rand Paul in Kentucky next Tuesday because he’s failed to make such a pivot.

Around these parts, there’s only one worse person to worship than Aqua Buddha — and that’s Barack Obama.