Liberal actress Ashley Judd considering run for McConnell's U.S. Senate seat in conservative Ky.

2/16/2013
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
Former Kentucky player Rex Chapman, right, poses with actress Ashley Judd last month in Lexington, Ky. As Judd moved this week to an increasingly likely candidate, Democrats in Kentucky fought publicly over whether she would be a viable challenger in 2014 to Sen. Mitch McConnell, or a serious liability.
Former Kentucky player Rex Chapman, right, poses with actress Ashley Judd last month in Lexington, Ky. As Judd moved this week to an increasingly likely candidate, Democrats in Kentucky fought publicly over whether she would be a viable challenger in 2014 to Sen. Mitch McConnell, or a serious liability.

ASHLAND, Ky. — It would seem like a Republican fantasy: a famous actress, who has been described by her own grandmother as a Hollywood liberal, is floated as a Senate candidate in one of the country's most conservative states, where she does not even live.

That is how Republican operatives gleefully seized on reports that the movie star Ashley Judd, who campaigned for President Barack Obama, might challenge Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate, when he is up for re-election next year.

''Ashley Judd — an Obama-following, radical Hollywood liberal" is how an attack ad put it, produced by a group led by the Republican strategist Karl Rove.

How serious could such a candidacy be? Plenty, it turns out.

''I would actually be surprised if she didn't run right now," said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. "She's done everything a serious candidate would do."

But even as Judd moved this week from a Republican chew toy to an increasingly likely candidate, Democrats in Kentucky fought publicly over whether she would be a viable challenger in 2014 to McConnell, or a serious liability.

Some Democratic strategists said her views were too far left of Kentucky voters, warning that she would drag down other Democrats on the state ballot.

''I say we place in peril our control of the state Legislature," said Dale Emmons, a strategist who advised the last unsuccessful Democratic challenger to McConnell, in 2008.

He added, "Her Siamese twin will immediately be Barack Obama," who lost Kentucky by 23 percentage points in November.

Another Kentucky-based consultant, James Cauley, said he began hearing fears from Kentucky officials last month when Judd attended the Bluegrass Ball in Washington during the inauguration, where she confirmed she was "taking a close look" at a run.

''People started saying, 'Oh my God, she is serious,'" said Cauley, who managed Obama's 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois. "One state legislator asked me to go to the White House and talk to Barack."

Cauley demurred. He and the president are not close.

Judd, 44, who has starred in "Ruby in Paradise," ''Double Jeopardy" and other movies, spent much of her childhood here in Ashland, in the rust belt of eastern Kentucky. Her mother is the country singer Naomi Judd, and Wynonna Judd, another country star, is a half-sister.

She attended the University of Kentucky and regularly returns for home basketball games in Lexington, sometimes leading the crowd in cheers for the Wildcats.

But her primary residence is outside Nashville. She was a Tennessee delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, speaking on behalf of Obama. She has been outspoken for animal rights and against violence toward women in Africa. More relevant to Kentucky, perhaps, is her opposition to mountaintop-removal coal mining, which many oppose but which no prominent candidate has publicly denounced for fear of losing support in coal country.

Yarmuth, who is the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation, dismissed concerns that Judd would be a liability. On the contrary, he said, she would neutralize McConnell's fundraising advantage and energize opposition.

''It will be the No. 1 race in the country without question if she runs," Yarmuth said.

He added, "An Ashley Judd race will bring out so many people energized to defeat Mitch, that will help Democrats down-ballot."

He said Judd's trial balloon has included hiring experienced national consultants in Washington and New York to conduct polls and opposition research on herself to identify her vulnerabilities.

Last week, Judd invited her 159,000 Twitter followers to join a mailing list, a ready-made base, teasing them, "You'll be the first to know, well, all sorts of things."

Her spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment for this article. A campaign professional in Washington whom Judd has spoken with said she was closely studying a race.

''She's getting lots of encouragement and is going to take some time to consider running," said the expert, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Public polling in Kentucky 21 months from the election, therefore imprecise, shows that McConnell, the Senate minority leader, leads all potential Democratic challengers. But he won re-election to a fifth term in 2008 by one of the narrowest margins of any Senate incumbent in the country, running in a state where registered Democrats are in the majority.

For those reasons Democrats consider him vulnerable despite his national prestige and power as minority leader.

Even opponents agree, however, that he is one of the toughest campaigners Kentucky has known. Other potential Democratic rivals, such as Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, have remained on the sideline, either out of fear of a costly primary battle or because their sights are fixed on goals like the 2015 governor's race.

''Leader McConnell will focus on a specific opponent when one files," Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager, said in a statement. "Our eventual opponent, whoever that may be, will be treated with respect, but we will run an outstanding campaign and communicate with every Kentuckian to make sure they know Sen. McConnell is fighting for them and make sure he earns their vote."

Other Republicans have not been so courtly; they are following the lead of Rove's super PAC, American Crossroads, which created a mocking online ad last week. Its narrator declared Judd "right at home in Tennessee — I mean Kentucky."

''What you have here is probably the state that has the most distaste for the Obama administration policies, from coal to gun policy to you name it," said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist in Louisville. "Enter Ashley Judd, who apparently because she doesn't live here didn't get the memo on how unpopular Obama is."

But those attack lines might not prove as potent as McConnell's supporters hope, judging by conversations with voters in here in Ashland. Even discounting a tendency to support a local girl made good, the city of 22,000 on the Ohio River is the embodiment of many Kentucky communities, a one-time Democratic stronghold whose voters feel the national party has drifted too far left.

Still, many residents said Judd's character, which they admired, was more important than her politics.

''She may be a little too liberal for me," said Janice Taylor, a 71-year-old retiree. But neither was she a fan of McConnell's.

"I've got tired of him," she said. "He's always against everything."

Perry Dalton, 67, who retired from the AK Steel plant in Ashland, said he was a Republican but liked Judd because she was not a typical politician.

''I know she wants to come back to help her state, her community, just from her heart," said Dalton, holding the hand of a granddaughter at the Town Center mall. "I know she's more liberal than me. But honesty is more important to me than anything."

Joan Christian, 42, a hospital technician, said she previously voted for McConnell but would not rule out Judd even because of her current residence out of state.

"I think she's as qualified as anyone," Christian said. "She was an educated professional woman before she was an actress."