After much fanfare and speculation, actress Ashley Judd announced via Twitter on Wednesday that she would not challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky in 2014.
That’s great news for Democrats. Here’s why.
McConnell and his campaign team have proven lethal at savaging past opponents, making the race entirely about his Democratic challenger and almost nothing about him. Judd was tailor-made for that approach, a Hollywood actress with lots (and lots) of public statements that are totally fine when made by an entertainer but simply don’t work in the context of a political campaign.
One example: At a women’s health forum at George Washington University earlier this month, Judd said the following: “We winter in Scotland. 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 continue to struggle amid a halting economic recovery.
And, the McConnell team had already telegraphed its plan in the race — to paint Judd as an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal who had only a passing familiarity with Kentuckians. Here’s a video the McConnell campaign released making just that point:
“Ashley faced numerous challenges that were already starting to play out over the airwaves,” said Penny Lee, a former executive director at the Democratic Governors Association. “Mitch McConnell is a skilled politician who would have made her first entry into politics extremely difficult.”
In the absence of Judd, the most likely Democratic candidate is newly minted Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. No lesser eminence in Democratic politics than former president Bill Clinton has urged Grimes to make the race, according to reporting from Politico’s Manu Raju.
While Grimes is something of a known commodity in the Bluegrass State — she is the daughter of former Democratic state party chairman Jerry Lundergan — she is nowhere close to being as well defined as Judd. In theory, her relative anonymity would work in Democrats’ favor, short-circuiting — or at least complicating — McConnell’s attempts to make the contest about his opponent rather than himself.
Before Democrats congratulate themselves too much, it’s important to remember three things: (1) Grimes isn’t in the race yet, (2) Kentucky is a conservative state, especially in the second midterm election of Barack Obama’s presidency, and (3) as mentioned above, McConnell is a lethal weapon when it comes to winning races — and he started 2013 with more than $7 million in his campaign bank account. (That’s actually four things, but whatever.)
Judd would have brought many things — star power, oodles of national money and a HUGE media spotlight — to the Kentucky Senate race. But, she would have been a first-time candidate with lots of baggage up against one of the best campaign operations in the Senate.
In not running, Judd increased the chances of Democrats’ making a serious run at McConnell in 2014.
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