Behold actress Ashley Judd, television and movie actress, dressed in a tight black dress showing cleavage, a spray of red orchids in her hair, chatting up media and political heavyweights at a pair of swank pre-Inaugural parties on Jan. 20.
Behold Ashley Judd, outspoken advocate for at-risk women and girls worldwide, in a demure floral cap sleeve frock, decrying gender violence and promoting reproductive rights to a roomful of international public health students and professionals at George Washington University on March 1, a day before she received the Global India Fund’s humanitarian award for her work.
Then decide for yourself whether at 44, this woman with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard, who says she once was among “the highest-paid women in the history of Hollywood” as well as a “three-time survivor of rape,” has what it takes to knock off potentially vulnerable five-term Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), who happens to be the Senate Minority Leader.
The election is not until November 2014, but the “will she/won’t she run?” buzz has caught the attention of everyone from failed GOP kingmaker Karl Rove — whose American Crossroads super PAC has already launched an Internet attack ad slamming Judd as an “Obama-following radical Hollywood liberal” who lives in Tennessee, not Kentucky — to members of the political chattering class who view a Judd campaign as among the most interesting, not to mention expensive match-ups in the next cycle. (McConnell, who may yet face a challenge from his own party’s right wing, is sitting on a $7.4 million war chest).
Unlike other electoral novices, Judd is already well known and has the potential to raise mega-bucks from the entertainment industry as well as from Democratic, women’s and environmental groups itching to win a Senate seat in this very red state.
The daughter and sister of country singers Naomi and Wynona Judd — whose family history can best be described as rocky — and the soon to be ex-wife of Scottish race car driver Dario Franchitti, Judd has signaled through publicists that she’ll make a decision in early May (in time for the Kentucky Derby, perhaps?).
At her recent GWU speech, which was carried on C-Span, she called the heavy speculation “the elephant in the room.”
By spring, she and her campaign handlers may have figured out how best to present her as true Bluegrass, a working woman who can identify with economically-stressed Kentucky voters despite spending so much time in Tennessee, L.A., and Franchitti’s native Scotland. (Both spouses claim their breakup is amicable, and during his career as a three-time Indy 500 winner, Judd spent considerable time on the racing circuit, which could help her with male voters).
Judd’s Web site describes her as “at least 10th generation Eastern Kentuckian” and a direct descendant of Mayflower pilgrims.
The Web site also notes that in 2010, she gave a National Press Club speech in Washington about “the rape of Appalachia” by the state’s all-important coal industry for its widespread practice of mountaintop-removal mining, which may not prove so helpful in a state dependent on coal sales.
The conservative Daily Caller recently cited several “bizarre” Judd statements that could turn off Kentucky voters. “She has spoken out against having kids, saying it is ‘unconscionable to breed’ while there are so many starving children in the world. She has criticized the tradition of fathers ‘giving away’ their daughters at weddings, calling that practice ‘a common vestige of male dominion over a woman’s reproductive status.’ She has even compared mountaintop removal mining to the Rwandan genocide, and has criticized Christianity as a religion that ‘legitimizes and seals male power.’”
At her GWU speech, Judd was all over the map, in one breath describing the very real problems of “1.3 billion people who don’t have access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion who don’t have an appropriate place to go to the bathroom,” and decrying the high incident of campus assaults against women. But she also noted that she has “a dog on a hunger strike. He only wants cheese,” and breezily turned a common noun into a loaded verb by telling the crowd “we winter in Scotland. We are smart like that.” It won’t be long until all those quotes pop up in attack ads.
That said, Judd has a deep fan base among those promoting gender equality and protection in some of the grimmest hellholes on Earth. “Ashley has been a tireless advocate for girls and women in India, and across the developing world,” said Global India Fund founder Amita N. Vyas in a statement announcing Judd’s selection for the humanitarian award. “Through her extensive travels and global advocacy efforts, Ashley has raised the profile of women and girl’s health issues among politicians, policy makers and the general public.”
The question remains whether a pop culture star can make the leap to a top political post, a la Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.)–originally a “Saturday Night Live” comedian– and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.), an Austrian-born champion body-builder.
Democratic political consultant Robert Shrum thinks Judd’s election is a longshot. ”The key is you don’t want to lose who you are. Franken did not stop being funny, but he is a good example of being very disciplined. He acted like a politician and not like an entertainer. You have to believe in the polling, to be ready to debate. Schwarzenegger ran in a way that made a lot of sense.”
As for Judd, Shrum said, “I think she has a very broad appeal. She is certainly no cultural carpetbagger.”
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com reporter and columnist whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, Town & Country and More. She is at work on a memoir.