WASHINGTON — It's no surprise to Steve Lowe that being an atheist is considered taboo.
But when the head of the Washington Area Secular Humanists saw Sen. Elizabeth Dole's "godless" campaign ad, he did something he'd done only once before — he sent money to a political candidate.
Turns out, Sen.-elect Kay Hagan got 3,600 contributions within 48 hours of Dole airing of the controversial ad, which centered on Hagan's attendance at a fund-raiser at the Boston home of someone active in the atheist community. The Democrat from Greensboro had immediately used the "godless" ad as an e-mail fund-raising tool, and it paid off.
"I told Hagan's campaign, 'This is the reason you're getting money from me — I want you to know this is not hurting you, this has helped you,'" said Lowe said, who gave $50 to Hagan and called Dole, R-N.C., several times to complain.
The 3,600 donations came from a cross-section of society.
"We got responses from people who identify themselves as atheists and every religion under the sun who found that ad offensive," said Hagan spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan, who said the campaign hadn't yet calculated the dollar figure raised as a result.
Dole, who was trailing in several polls, pulled out a last-ditch and ultimately unsuccessful effort to save her job in the last week of the campaign.
Her initial spot opened with an announcer declaring: "A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor," then airs video of PAC members describing their beliefs, including a woman who says, "There was no Jesus."
Hagan, who had in fact attended the fundraiser though it was unrelated to the host's atheist affiliation, charged that the ad questioned her faith. She particularly objected to how the ad closed, with a picture of her but another woman's voice saying, "There is no God."
A second ad Dole aired a couple days later was modified by removing the ending and saying the issue was not one of faith for Hagan, who has been a Sunday school teacher and church elder. It said, "If Godless Americans threw a party in your honor, would you go?"
Dole was roundly criticized for the campaign tactic, and some critics also questioned Hagan's judgment in attending the fundraiser.
Besides the campaign contributions to Hagan, another way to judge the impact of the TV ads is the point spread in the race. Hagan won with 53 percent of the vote, compared to Dole's 44 percent, said Tom Jensen, a spokesman for Public Policy Polling in Raleigh.
Hagan had been running 4 points ahead of Barack Obama during early voting, which except for a couple days, didn't include the period of time when Dole was airing the ads, Jensen said.
But on Election Day, after the ad had saturated air waves and news talk shows, Hagan ran 11 points ahead of President-elect Obama, a fellow Democrat who beat GOP nominee John McCain.
Jensen said he thinks Dole would have lost anyway.
"It may have just made the difference between losing by 3 or 5 and losing by 9 but there is no doubt that running that ad hurt her chances of re-election, and probably damaged her legacy in the process," he said.
Dole, asked about the strategy at a stop in Charlotte on Election Day, said she wasn't sure if it had helped or hurt her, but said she felt she had to "respond forcefully" after a barrage of outside ads from Democratic groups criticized her.
Asked at what point she decided to run the last-minute ad, Dole said she couldn't answer definitively, but added, "When she first said she was going there (to the fundraiser) probably."
Dole said the $3 million personal loan she made to her own campaign in early October wasn't specifically to pay for the "godless" ad.
"It was not tied in any way — that was just a matter of putting some skin in the game," said the one-time director of the American Red CrossWhen Hagan asked for money the day after Dole's ads start running, she said in an e-mail to supporters, "Help me respond by paying for an ad directly addressing these claims attacking my Christian faith."
Lowe, the Washington atheist, said he gave money unsolicited because he was upset that Dole would suggest a candidate was unqualified or "unworthy" due to associating with people who don't believe in God.
"It was so offensive to me," said Lowe, who was unveiling an unrelated ad campaign with other atheist leaders Tuesday at the National Press Club.
In that campaign, Washington buses will have signs that say, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."