Will Ashley Judd Challenge Mitch McConnell for Senate? Kentucky Democrats Think So

Actress Ashley Judd considering Senate Run

February 22, 2013, 6:14 PM

Feb. 25, 2013— -- The beautiful movie star tries to take on Washington by defeating a powerful Republican leader. It's not a plot line, it's reality: The actress Ashley Judd is making moves to take on GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

She hasn't announced yet, but her biggest supporter in Kentucky, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, told ABC News, "I would be surprised if she doesn't run at this point."

"My impression is this is something she wants to do, and she is now taking the time to make the contacts she needs to make throughout the state to try and generate commitments of support and in some cases fundraising," Yarmuth said. "She is certainly acting like a candidate, a potential candidate.

"I think in her own mind ... she has made a decision to run and she's doing the right thing and not ruffling any feathers along the way," Yarmuth said.

Yarmuth, the only Kentucky Democrat in Congress, said he expects the decision to come soon.

The race will be one of the most watched in the country, with outside money pouring into the state. Yarmuth said: "It would be a great economic stimulus. It would be Christmas for six months or more," especially for local television stations that would run political commercials.

"I think the contrast would be so marked and I think it will be someone with a vision for the future and someone so stuck in a rut in the past that he no longer represents the future of the commonwealth," Yarmuth said.

One thing that's guaranteed is it will be a brutal race -- a 30-year veteran of Washington against a Hollywood star active in liberal Democratic politics from a legendary family. Judd's mother is the country singer Naomi Judd and her half-sister is the singer Wynonna Judd.

Yarmuth says Judd is ready and has even done opposition research on herself to see areas McConnell will try to "exploit."

"I think she has no illusions about what Mitch McConnell will do and the fact that his entire career he has demonized opponents and never talks about himself," Yarmuth said. "In her world she is used to dealing with a lot of nonsense so I think she will deal with it very well."

And it's already started. McConnell released a humorous Web video called "Obama's Kentucky Candidate," which shows the president trying to find a candidate to take on McConnell.

It goes after Judd and other Kentucky Democrats who may get into the race. It focuses on an issue that is clear to become one in the race: that Judd lives in Tennessee and not in Kentucky. In the video Judd calls both Tennessee and San Francisco "home."

This wasn't the first anti-Judd video. Earlier this month the Karl Rove-backed superPAC American Crossroads released an ad hitting Judd as well. Her family does go back eight generations in the state, though, and she is from Ashland in eastern Kentucky (though, of course, her own grandmother famously dubbed her a Hollywood liberal).

Yarmuth said the residency issue would not be a "particularly effective" one because "her roots are so firmly established growing up here."

"Everyone knows that Kentucky is her first love," Yarmuth said. He called the carpetbagger attacks a "waste of time" and he hopes McConnell "keeps making them."

On Valentine's Day Judd had dinner with Yarmuth and other Democratic leaders in the state, including Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former state treasurer Jonathan Miller, at the home of Louisville philanthropist Christy Brown.

Judd is also planning to meet with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. According to a video posted on local television channel CN2 he said she could be a "very serious candidate," although he noted there are others who could be as well.

"I talked to Ashley Judd during the Kentucky Ball that was part of the inaugural ceremonies in Washington in January," Beshear said. "And then she's been trying to arrange, and will be arranging, some more conversations here in the next month or so."

Beshear knows McConnell can be tough. He challenged him and lost in 1996.

Miller called Judd a "change agent."

"She is offering a completely different candidate and to me that's why I think she is uniquely able to beat Mitch McConnell" -- even though, as Miller put it, McConnell is an "effective and brilliant politician."

One issue Miller knows about intimately and how it can hurt a candidacy in the state is the issue of mountaintop removal mining. Judd has spoken out against it extensively in the past and Miller says it can easily become an issue where she is labeled as anti-coal, calling it the "third rail" of politics in the state. Miller says his stance against the issue hurt his own gubernatorial candidacy. He ended up dropping out and supporting Beshear, who won in 2007.

Miller thinks it won't affect Judd the way it hurt him because she's "got this unique ability to not have to chase cameras because the cameras will be chasing her and she will get a chance to explain herself."

Miller says Judd "hasn't made a final decision," but she knows that "these kinds of opportunities open up very rarely."

Those in Washington who would be pouring money into Judd's campaign and helping steer it if she is the nominee are keeping their lips sealed for the moment.

Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said they "aren't talking about recruitment" in Kentucky or elsewhere, but "whoever is the nominee in Kentucky is going to be incredibly well-funded and has a good chance of beating Mitch McConnell," noting the senator's mixed approval ratings.

Not all Democrats are jumping on the Judd bandwagon, though. Some are loudly voicing their opposition because they believe she is too liberal for most Kentuckians and will drag down other Democrats.

Longtime Democratic consultant Jim Cauley said Kentucky Democrats are worried.

"She's got to ask, how does she connect with an average Kentuckian with issues like immense poverty and lack of education," Cauley said. "Her life experience doesn't seem to connect with that."

Cauley said the political consultants that Judd has circling her can only "see dollar signs."

"I hope she is listening to someone who doesn't just have dollar signs in front of her face," Cauley said before a note of caution. "Her life is going to get ready to be picked apart, divorce and all. I've watched (McConnell) dismantle people." (Judd announced her divorce from her husband of 11 years just last month. McConnell is also divorced).

Cauley says state Democrats are worried they will lose the state House of Representatives. Obama lost the state in 2012, though Democrats actually have an advantage in voter registration. Democrats are a minority in the state Senate and are uneasy about the governor's race in 2015.

"That would turn Kentucky from purple to completely red and that breaks my heart, but if they want to run at it, run at it," Cauley said.

Cauley was President Obama's campaign manager for his 2004 senate race in Illinois. Some Kentucky Democrats have asked him to call the president to try and get him to ask Judd not to run.

Cauley's response? Obama has "bigger fish to fry."

Yarmuth says he knows of the concern, but doesn't think Democrats should worry.

"I argue that the energy and excitement she will create with her campaign will boost turnout for the people who will vote for not just her, but Democrats down the ballot," Yarmuth said.

Former Kentucky Secretary of State and senate candidate Trey Grayson says the race will be an "uphill battle for any Democrat running," but Judd has two advantages: she will get a "ton of earned money and have no problem raising money."

Grayson, who now is the director of Harvard's Institute of Politics, says "the best way to knock off Mitch McConnell" may be someone on the outside, but he notes the residency issue could be her biggest problem, as well as her vocal support of Obama.

"They won't question her Kentucky bona fides, but she literally doesn't live there," Grayson said. "It's a bit of an issue."

McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said at this point Republicans are "not thinking too much about any specific opponent," and until someone files they will be "building the best campaign organization that we possibly can."

"We did test a few issues against Ashley Judd back in December and we did see that some of the positions she has taken are quite outside what Kentuckians want to see in a senator and really moved the ballot against her."

Benton said they are going to run a "positive" and "professional" campaign, but believe state and national Democrats will "bring the kitchen sink, a full onslaught" against McConnell.

"We are prepared to run strong," he said. "And we are going to make sure we defend Sen. McConnell."