March 22, 2013 -- Former President Bill Clinton has spoken to both Ashley Judd and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes about the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, encouraging them both to take a hard look at the race.
ABC News has learned that Clinton encouraged Judd to enter the race and promised he would help her, according to several Kentucky political sources. That conversation happened sometime between the November election and President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
Earlier this month Clinton met with Grimes, who is also weighing a bid, after he spoke at an event for former Kentucky Sen. Wendell Ford in Owensboro, Ky., according to multiple political sources in the state. Clinton encouraged Grimes to consider taking on McConnell, adding as he did with Judd that he would support her. The conversation was described as "candid" and "frank" with Clinton saying "all options are available" to the 34-year-old secretary of state and that she has "unlimited potential." He did add that "bigger is always better," meaning that the Senate seat would be a better choice than running for the U.S. House in the sixth district or waging a gubernatorial bid in 2015. Both are options Grimes is said to be considering.
The same sources stressed that despite the time gap, Clinton wasn't choosing Grimes over Judd or changing allegiances, but that he expressed encouragement to both, believing it's unlikely that both would enter the race.
Although it is possible the two could be in the primary against each other.
News of Clinton's meeting with Grimes was first reported by Politico.
Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Clinton said, "President Clinton fully intends to support the Democratic nominee in this race."
The Clintons are longtime friends and allies of Grimes's father, Jerry Lundergan, a former state party chairman, and Grimes herself who became secretary of state in 2011 after beating her primary challenger who was backed by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. Allies of hers say she is considering this race, but has not made a decision. Jerry Lundergan was a strong supporter of Bill Clinton, but also of Hillary Clinton's presidential bid in 2008, and they remain close.
However, the Clintons are also close to Judd, who publicly backed Hillary Clinton over then Senator Obama in 2008 and even campaigned with Bill Clinton on behalf of Hillary in March 2008. Just days before the Texas primary, Clinton and Judd campaigned together standing in the back of a pickup truck at a private airport hangar in Abilene, Texas. She entertained the crowd, while Clinton was hours late due to a lightning storm.
Two camps are emerging in Kentucky about who would make the better candidate to take on McConnell.
Grimes supporters say Judd is just too politically risky with her liberal views and support of Obama in a conservative state. They say her public pronouncements against mountaintop removal mining, as well as her residency issue (her family goes back eight generations in the state, but she currently lives in Nashville) are all reasons she wouldn't stand a chance against McConnell. His supporters are quick to point out these issues as well.
Judd backers agree that while Grimes doesn't have any political baggage, she doesn't have the fundraising ability or star power to beat McConnell.
Both groups say they are being inundated by people who support both candidates and want to see them take McConnell on.
Dale Emmons, a longtime political operative and Grimes backer who helped her win in 2011, is part of the crowd who believes a Judd candidacy is too risky and means Democrats could lose power in the state House flipping it to the Republicans.
"Everybody wants to get him," Emmon said of McConnell. "If Grimes get this race, I think we get McConnell."
Emmon added that he is "not anti-Ashley Judd."
"We are all proud of Ashley Judd, a native daughter, and her success in the entertainment industry as well as her mother and sister," Emmons said. "But, let's get real about the stakes here. If something makes us lose additional seats [in the statehouse], we become a right-to-work state. We don't want that to happen."
McConnell is seen as the most vulnerable he has ever been. State polls show his popularity low and he has already run ads reaching out to women in the state.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) is Judd's most vocal proponent in the state and in an interview said Grimes would also "be a strong opponent against Mitch McConnell," but "nobody brings to the table the unique assets that Ashley Judd does."
"There are a lot of Democrats right now who are expressing some concern about her candidacy and what I would say to them is, We've tried five conventional campaigns in a row against Mitch McConnell and been unsuccessful," Yarmuth said, adding that he called Grimes, but she had not called him back yet.
"I don't know of anyone she has ever told that she is interested in this race," Yarmuth said of Grimes. "If she is interested in it, she ought to tell somebody… but to the best of my knowledge she hasn't said anything to anyone."
A Kentucky Democratic source said Yarmuth is not the only elected Democratic official who has reached out to Grimes but hasn't gotten a call back.
In an example of the schism forming between the two camps, Emmons said it is Judd who's not reaching out to Kentucky Democrats, not the other way around.
"I'm mystified why she's not coming to Kentucky," Emmons said. "We haven't heard from her. Whoever is advising her is not from Kentucky. They are running this campaign with an aloof strategy."
Multiple sources have said neither Judd nor Grimes have reached out to each other.
Grimes backers say she is seriously considering entering the race and is waiting until the legislative session wraps up next week to make more concrete moves. In fact, Grimes said on Wednesday she was focused on the end of the session when she was asked about the potential race by reporters, according to the Associated Press. She did say that she has been getting encouragement to run against McConnell.
Grimes wouldn't answer questions about whether Bill Clinton had encouraged her run or other specific questions about the race simply answering: "My focus right now has been on the legislative session."
Grimes' office declined an interview with ABC News, citing the end of the legislative session. Judd's publicist said she is not doing interviews right now.