March 13, 2013— -- There's nothing like getting a head start. His re-election contest may be 20 months away, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., possibly fearing an Ashley Judd candidacy, already has an ad targeted specifically at women voters that will run this week in his home state.
The ad, which includes a television, radio and online component, includes McConnell's wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, looking directly into the camera as she criticizes "far left special interests."
"You've seen the ads attacking my husband," Chao says in the 30-second spot, which will begin running Thursday in Lexington and Louisville. "As Mitch McConnell's wife, I've learned to expect them. Now, far-left special interests are also attacking my ethnicity, even attacking Mitch's patriotism, because he's married to me."
Chao is hitting back after a group called Progress Kentucky, a super PAC aimed at defeating McConnell, posted tweets last month that highlighted Chao's Chinese ancestry. After first defending the tweets, criticism from both sides of the aisle (including possible candidate Judd) led them to apologize and delete the tweets.
The six-figure ad buy will be up for a week. McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton called the candidate "a tremendous champion for Kentucky" who "goes to bat for the commonwealth every day."
"Liberal special-interest groups across the country are sure to try every dirty trick in the book to tear him down, but our campaign will fight as hard as Mitch fights for us and make sure we spread his positive message to every voter in the state," Benton said in a statement.
Judd isn't even a declared candidate yet, but her supporters believe McConnell has a problem with women voters, and say this ad seems to show he's worried about them too.
Judd's most vocal backer in the state, Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., in reacting to the news of the ad, told ABC News "clearly Mitch knows that he is in very deep water with women in Kentucky."
Yarmuth, along with others who want Judd to get into the race, note that McConnell's vote against the Violence Against Women Act could give the actress an advantage.
"These are things that women understand and appreciate, and I know they are not on Mitch's side on these issues, so he's got a lot of work to do with women and certainly the prospect of an Ashley Judd candidacy, someone who has devoted a great deal of her life over the last 20 years to fighting for women's rights and women's priorities, give her a real, real leg up against McConnell," Yarmuth said, adding that he believes McConnell is "panicked about an Ashley Judd candidacy.
"Everything from having her surrogates talk about her movie nude scenes to talking about her residency to trying to discredit her early on, they know they are in trouble against Ashley Judd," Yarmuth said.
Judd, of course, has not announced her candidacy yet, but said Yarmuth, "everything that I've seen her do and the things that she's said to me indicate that she is going to make a race. ... I fully expect her to."
Yarmuth added that he believes Judd will "make a decision relatively soon," so she doesn't "frustrate the people who are excited about her candidacy."
While McConnell's new ad, which is soon to debut, doesn't mention Judd or any potential opponents, it's clear this race will get nasty, and some of Judd's more eyebrow-raising comments will definitely be on the table, said Yarmuth. But she's "tough skinned," Yarmuth said, and is ready for any fight.
"I would wonder whether Mitch can put up with getting it thrown back at him, because he will, and Mitch has never really had somebody ... who can give as good as they can take, and I think Ashley Judd can," Yarmuth said, before warning McConnell about playing rough.
"I think there is a problem with nasty campaigning when you aim at somebody who is as beloved as Ashley Judd is in Kentucky," Yarmuth said. "She's a very sweet person, so to go after her personally carries a risk, and I think the McConnell team knows that."
Monday the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee identified the race as a "top priority," but Executive Director Guy Cecil stopped short of embracing a Judd candidacy, noting there were "a handful of quality candidates in Kentucky," and "there's actually a deep bench."
Last week, the Louisville Eccentric Observer reported that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was re-evaluating Judd, and was now taking a "serious second look at recruiting" the Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes after the committee conducted a poll that showed Grimes running better than Judd against McConnell. Cecil responded to the story, saying his committee members "don't spend a lot of time talking to weekly newspapers about our recruitment strategy. That is certainly true in this case," but Yarmuth said Democrats needed Judd because they needed an unconventional campaign to beat McConnell.
"The DSCC is not always right," Yarmuth said. "The DSCC ought to come to Kentucky and see how popular Ashley Judd is before they start making a choice in a Senate race. They have often been wrong."
One woman who knows what it means to take on McConnell is Lois Combs Weinberg, who ran unsuccessfully against the senate minority leader in 2002.
Weinberg said she would support Judd, but warned McConnell was a "fierce competitor."
"I think she has star quality that will resonate in Kentucky even with the good ol' boys and with women -- her issues are ones that women of all ages will support," Weinberg said, noting Judd's work against domestic violence.
Weinberg also believes that unlike her own campaign of 11 years ago women Democratic activists and women voters in general would come together to put Judd over the top, noting that Democratic activists were much more organized than they were when she ran.
"I think it would be possible for her to galvanize the women's vote in a powerful way," Weinberg said. "Not only women, but young people. ... He [McConnell] has called her a Hollywood liberal as if she's a scarlet woman. She needs to go out there with her own message, go out with what's best for all of Kentucky. Let him rave and rant and spend his money."
Democratic State Senator Kathy Stein, another Judd supporter, said she, too, encouraged the actress to get into the race. "If Republicans are going to target women ... these commercials are going to be very entertaining. We will laugh a lot.
"It surprises me that someone as cagey politically as Mitch McConnell is worried about something," Stein said. "[He is] or they wouldn't be spending this much money trying to dissuade her."