ASHLAND, Ky. — It would seem like a Republican fantasy: a famous actress, described even by her 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 Ashley Judd, who campaigned for President 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 Republican strategist Karl Rove.
How serious could such a candidacy be? Plenty, it turns out.
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“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 … 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 about 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.
Judd, 44, who has starred in “Ruby in Paradise,” “Double Jeopardy” and other movies, spent much of her childhood in Ashland, in the rust belt of eastern Kentucky. Her mother is country singer Naomi Judd; 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 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.
More relevant to Kentucky, perhaps, is her opposition to mountaintop-removal coal mining, which many oppose but which no prominent candidate in Kentucky has publicly denounced for fear of losing support in coal country.
Yarmuth, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, dismissed concerns that Judd would be a liability. 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.”
Through a spokeswoman, Judd declined to 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.
McConnell’s camp seemed unfazed. “Leader McConnell will focus on a specific opponent when one files,” said Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager.