Actress Ashley Judd is seriously looking at trying to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2014, according to a new report from Politico’s Manu Raju.
But for Judd, the odds against her are massive. Indeed, if she ran and won, it would likely register as the biggest upset ever for a celebrity politician.
A cursory look at the history of celebrities and athletes who run for political office reveals that most of them either (1) lose or (2) win lower-profile races like mayor or House member.
Even the celebrities who have won statewide office have almost always been involved in politics for years before their campaigns or benefited from some extenuating circumstances.
Case in point: The three biggest such political wins of the last 15 years all featured the celebrity winning with less than half of the vote in an unusual race.
* Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, ran in a very good year for Democrats in 2008 and also had a three-way race, with independent candidate and former senator Dean Barkley pulling 15 percent of the vote. Franken won with just less than 42 percent of the vote.
* Action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) won his first term as governor of California in a 2003 recall election that was essentially a two-month sprint and featured dozens of candidates and an odd format. He took less than 49 percent of the vote.
* Jesse Ventura (I), a professional wrestler and actor, won a three-way race for Minnesota governor in 1998 with just 37 percent of the vote.
Looking back a little further, most other celebrities who won statewide office had years of active political involvement behind them:
* Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966 and president in 1980. But before his tenure in elective office, he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and active in presidential politics.
*George Murphy (R), a star of Hollywood musicals, was Reagan before Reagan. He served as SAG president before Reagan and then as the California Republican State Central Committee chairman before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964.
* Actor John Davis Lodge (R) was a congressman before he became Connecticut’s governor in the 1950s. And he had politics in his blood as the grandson and great-grandson of U.S. senators Henry Cabot Lodge and George Cabot.
* Actor and former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) was a counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee and other Senate committees and active in Tennessee politics before his acting career began in the 1980s. He was elected to the Senate in 1994.
As for the others, the stakes weren’t nearly as high. Singer Sonny Bono and actors Fred Grandy (“The Love Boat”) and Ben Jones (“Dukes of Hazzard”) all won seats in the House, and Clint Eastwood was the mayor of a small California town. Grandy notably ran for Iowa governor in 1994 and lost.
Among athletes, NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann and former NBA player Chris Dudley have recently lost campaigns for governor of Pennsylvania and Oregon, respectively, and former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and NFLer Steve Largent both failed to make the jump from the U.S. House to governor in Nebraska and Oklahoma, respectively.
Jack Kemp, of course, was a pro football player before his political career, but he had long been involved in politics before launching his first campaign for Congress in 1970. And he never advanced beyond the lower chamber, despite running for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988 and being then-Sen. Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996, when he was the GOP nominee.
If Judd were to run, she would be waging a higher-profile first run for political office than any of the names above — an attempt to take out a five-term incumbent and the leader of a party’s Senate caucus.
While she’s been outspoken on certain issues, Judd doesn’t have the kind of hands-on political experience of a Reagan, a Lodge or a Murphy. And it’s hard to see her benefiting from the kind of field that Franken, Schwarzenegger and Ventura had, because third parties don’t often field candidates in Kentucky — much less viable ones.
(One caveat: If McConnell somehow loses his primary, that could register as an “extenuating circumstance,” but that hardly seems likely at this point.)
In addition, Judd would be a liberal Democrat (her grandmother recently described her as a “Hollywood liberal”) running in a very red state — one that gave President Obama 38 percent of the vote. Kentucky may elect Democratic governors, but it hasn’t picked a Democrat for Senate since 1992.
If Democrats pursue a Judd candidacy, it would more likely be because they have no other viable options and it’s worth throwing something (well-funded) at the wall and hoping it sticks.
Judd would raise plenty of money and perhaps bring some attention to the race, but the odds stacked against her are momentous. And confronted with those odds, it’s hard to see her even making the leap.