Ashley Judd looks like she is running for Senate. Is that bad thing for Democrats?

March 4, 2013

Actress Ashley Judd is giving off lots of signals that she is going to make the race against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014. She's chatting with Democratic legislative leaders in the state about the idea and huddling with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee too.


Ashley Judd, Senate candidate? Getty photo

But, would a Judd candidacy be a good thing for Democrats who want to beat McConnell next November?

There's little question that McConnell is vulnerable to a Democratic challenge -- in spite of Kentucky's clear Republican lean.  Most polling done in the race shows McConnell with middling (at best) job approval numbers and the fact that his own campaign released a survey that showed the highest ranking Senate Republican with just a four-point lead over Judd is all the evidence you need of the shaky political ground on which he stands.

And, a look back at McConnell's past races suggests that almost no matter who Democrats nominate the contest will be competitive. With the exception of his 2002 race where he won with 65 percent, McConnell has never won re-election with more than 55 percent of the vote; in 2008, he won a fifth term with 53 percent.

But, to assume that Judd is the candidate that can finally get over the top against McConnell, seems to miss a key element of how the Kentucky Republican has won his races.

McConnell, like his equal across the aisle Harry Reid, is a rare politician well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. McConnell knows that his path to victory is not by telling a positive story about himself but by savaging the other guy.

You only need to look back at his last race to see McConnell's strategy in action. Facing a deep-pocketed Democrat named Bruce Lunsford, McConnell went on a carpet-bombing campaign blasting Lunsford for his alleged mismanagement of health care clinics. (Here's just one example.)

McConnell has already signaled that he will take that same approach if Judd runs, releasing a web video casting her as President Obama's candidate and reminding people that she lives in Tennessee currently.

And, while Lunsford had his fair share of negatives, Judd's status as an actress and celebrity -- with lots and lots of public statements that might not represent the average Kentucky voter -- makes her all the more vulnerable to McConnell's preferred campaign strategy. (Also worth noting: Celebrity candidates rarely fare well.)

Take Judd's comment at a George Washington University forum on women's health late last week. "We winter in Scotland," she said. "We're smart like that." Using the word "winter" as a verb is almost never a good thing in politics, particularly at a time when many people in Kentucky and across the country continue to struggle with a halting economic recovery.  There's plenty more where that came from, and you can bet McConnell's team has a dossier full of Judd-isms. (Democrats insist that when voters meet Judd, they will like her. But, she won't be able to meet every person in the state and, therefore, will be defined -- negatively or positively -- by the television ads that are run in the race.)

The simple fact is that the way McConnell loses is if a Democrat can run a campaign that is 90 percent about him and 10 percent about them.  Judd -- who she is and what she's said -- allows McConnell to make the race at least in part about her, and that's a major problem.  It's also why the Democratic argument that they have no other obvious candidate doesn't hold that much water; an unknown Democrat might be able to keep the spotlight on McConnell far better than Judd.

In talking to a handful of Democratic Senate strategists -- the vast majority of whom defend Judd and believe she will be a good, if unconventional candidate -- they all make a similar argument: Judd can raise the sort of money to rival or even eclipse the always well-funded McConnell.

“McConnell is perpetually unpopular," said former DSCC executive director Jim Jordan. "He wins by out-spending.  And she'll raise a TON.”

Jordan is right on both counts.

Along with his proven ability to make his re-election races about his opponents, McConnell is also one of the best political fundraisers in the business. (He raised $20 million and outspent Lunsford two-to-one in 2008.)

And, there's no question that Judd could raise massive sums -- thanks to her celebrity connections and  the fact that she would instantly become a national progressive sensation.

"She’s going to raise a ton of money, so she’s going to be able to put Mitch on the defense as well about his record," explained on Democratic consultant closely monitoring the Kentucky Senate race.  "[McConnell is] going to spend $25 million dollars to savage anyone.  Who wouldn’t rather start off with a candidate who begins with a reservoir of good will with the voters as opposed to an unknown?"

And yet, if Judd could be ensured of raising millions, couldn't McConnell use Judd's presence in the race to do the exact same thing? In a world without Ted Kennedy or Hillary Clinton to raise national conservative money off of, couldn't Judd fill that role not just for McConnell but for other Republicans running for Senate?

It's hard to imagine McConnell winning more than 53 or 54 percent of the vote against any Democratic candidate -- including Judd. But, while Judd's capacity to raise money is a clear strength, she seems to be a candidate tailor-made (and not in a good way) for the sort of campaign McConnell wants to run and has shown an affinity for in the past.

Assuming Judd runs (and we are leaning toward a "yes"), this is going to be one hell of a race.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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