Ashley Judd Is a 30-Second Ad Waiting to Happen

Jill Lawrence
National Journal

Last year's campaign season left candidates with at least two giant takeaways. First, never assume what you say at a private function will stay private. And second, it’s usually best not to talk about rape.

Democratic actress Ashley Judd, who is gearing up to take on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell next year in Kentucky, is already breaking both of those informal rules. She is a self-described "three-time rape survivor" who, according to a Huffington Post report by Howard Fineman, said last month at a private dinner in Louisville that since she has survived rape, "I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.”

Obviously, Judd is not a man making nonsensical, some would say morally reprehensible, statements about rape. She’s a woman, a rape victim, and an activist for women’s health who wrote about being raped as a child in her 2011 autobiography. If you do a Google search for "Ashley Judd rape," you will get 1.4 million hits that include mentions of her book, her comparison of strip mining to rape, her assertion that she and other Apple customers are "financing mass rape," and her response to Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's strange comments on rape. She is used to talking about rape in a way that other people aren't.

Still, is it wise to liken the challenge of rape to the challenge of defeating McConnell? And to assume that the remark won't make it to publication? If there was any doubt about the end of the truly private political event after candidate Barack Obama's "cling to guns or religion" experience in 2008, it vanished last year when Mitt Romney’s remarks about the "47 percent" surfaced on video for all to see (and use in their ads).

Even before Judd’s rape remark was reported, Republicans were trying to frame her as this year’s Akin – a single candidate who could damage a whole party. The Akin rape debacle fed into preexisting perceptions of the GOP as anti-woman and anti-science. Judd is already being depicted by Republicans as a flaky Hollywood liberal – a stereotype Democrats have struggled with for years, between trips to collect cash from Hollywood liberals.

Cash is, in fact, Judd’s calling card. She can raise big money, the reasoning goes, so she will keep McConnell busy at home and keep in Kentucky chunks of GOP money that might have been used for other races. On the off chance she pulls out a win, all the better.

Judd, who starred in an ABC TV series last year and has two movies coming out this year, is more than a celebrity. She has been recognized for her work on poverty, AIDS, public health, and other issues, and she recently earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard. And though she lives in Tennessee, her political allies say she is well known and well thought of in her native Kentucky. “She’s incredibly likable, she’s willing to work very hard, and she’s very smart. She’s underestimated at folks’ own peril,” says one party strategist.

But Judd is not a great fit for a conservative Southern state, and her vulnerabilities are tailor-made for 30-second political ads. In 2006, she criticized as a vestige of “male dominion” the tradition of fathers giving away their daughters in marriage, and said,  “It’s unconscionable to breed, with the number of children who are starving to death in impoverished countries.” Last fall, homing in on a pillar of the Kentucky economy, she tweeted, “The era of coal plant is over, unacceptable.” She continues to provide fodder for the GOP even as she heads toward a candidacy (all right, so the husband she is divorcing, and calls “family forever,” is Scottish race-car driver Dario Franchitti -- but did she have to tell students this month that “we winter in Scotland”?).

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has released a satirical (and fake) Judd fundraising letter, and the McConnell campaign posted a mash-up video including clips in which Judd refers to both Tennessee and San Francisco as “home.” “It's difficult to envision how a faded Hollywood star, who currently lives in Tennessee, believes that having children is 'unconscionable,' and that coal is 'unacceptable,' would be able to relate to folks in Kentucky,” says NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring. If she runs, he adds, “we'll look forward to hearing her further explain her odd views -- after she moves to the state, of course.”

Some Democrats say the early attacks on Judd suggest McConnell and the GOP consider her a real threat. “McConnell is trying to eliminate her right out of the box because of how deep his problems are. They’re clearly seeing something in the numbers that makes them nervous,” says a Democratic strategist. Yet other Democrats in Kentucky and Washington are calling a time-out and talking about alternatives such as Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Clearly they're suffering from nerves, too, and it's not hard to understand why.

A McConnell-Judd race would be a circus from start to finish, providing endless opportunities for McConnell to exploit Judd’s years of provocative remarks and for first-time candidate Judd to make more of them, all in the intense spotlight only fitting for the Senate’s top Republican and an actress from a dysfunctional country-music family. The media would have a blast. Democrats running for other offices in Kentucky and elsewhere, maybe not so much.