February 15, 2013
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 Obama, might challenge Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in the United States 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 Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky. “She’s done everything a serious candidate would do.”
But even as Ms. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Ms. 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 Mr. Cauley, who managed Mr. Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois. “One state legislator asked me to go to the White House and talk to Barack.”
Mr. Cauley demurred. He and the president are not close.
Ms. 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 President 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.
Mr. Yarmuth, who is the only Democrat in the state’s Congressional delegation, dismissed concerns that Ms. Judd would be a liability. On the contrary, he said, she would neutralize Mr. McConnell’s fund-raising advantage and energize opposition.
“It will be the No. 1 race in the country without question if she runs,” Mr. 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 Ms. 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, Ms. 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 Ms. Judd has spoken with said she was closely studying a race.