What Ashley Judd Could Learn From Al Franken

Elahe Izadi
March 8, 2013

If actress Ashley Judd takes the plunge and runs for the Senate, she would be drawing lessons from the last long-shot celebrity to successfully get elected: Minnesota's Sen. Al Franken. 

There are plenty of parallels between Franken and Judd, who hasn’t yet announced whether she’s running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Take the people around them. EMILY’s List, the Democratic group dedicated to electing women who support abortion rights, has been assisting Judd’s prospective campaign behind the scenes. Two top EMILY’s List officials, President Stephanie Schriock and Communications Director Jess McIntosh, also served in senior positions on Franken’s campaign.

McIntosh accompanied Judd when she delivered a speech on women’s health at George Washington University. Schriock penned a recent editorial on sequestration that targeted McConnell. The group hosted a brunch featuring Judd before President Obama’s inauguration.

Franken and Judd are both nationally known because of their work in the entertainment industry. Franken was a comedian and satirist, best known for writing and acting on Saturday Night Live. But he successfully made the transition into politics, overcoming attacks on his readiness for public office while on the campaign trail and maintaining a low-key, serious profile once on the Hill. He eschews the national spotlight, preferring to talk to Minnesota press only.

“It shows a path that someone known for entertainment work can be known as a serious, substantive legislator. It shows it’s possible,” said an operative with knowledge of the Franken campaign. But it’s not an easy transition.

“You’re going to face additional scrutiny, lots of questions of whether you’re up to the job or doing it as a frivolous thing, a lark,” says American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, a longtime Franken friend. 

What worked in Franken’s favor? Ornstein points to his work ethic and his assiduous relationship-building with state party leaders early on. And most important, Franken is well versed in policy, despite the comic persona. “None of this would have worked for Al if it weren’t for the fact that he had the right stuff,” Ornstein said.

Franken didn’t make a sudden switch from writing jokes to delivering stump speeches. Long after his SNL days, he wrote satirical books about politics, stumped for candidates in Minnesota, and spent three years hosting a weekday, three-hour progressive talk-radio show. That’s a lot of time to fill with policy debates.

Judd could demonstrate the same ability. She went to Harvard (as an adult) and graduated in 2010 with a master’s degree in public administration. She’s been active in numerous humanitarian causes and was a vocal Obama supporter, attending the 2012 Democratic National Convention as a delegate from Tennessee.

“The idea that she might have done nude scenes in movies isn’t going to faze anyone who may vote for her, if she can demonstrate she’s serious,” Ornstein says.

Both Franken and Judd have had to deal with questions about their residency. Franken has strong Minnesota roots, but he lived in New York for a long time before moving back to his home state, an issue that Republicans used against him in the 2008 campaign. Judd's family has lived in Kentucky for generations, but she also resides in Tennessee – a fact that’s already been the subject of attack ads from Republicans, even though she hasn’t announced her run.

But there’s one glaring difference between Franken’s 2008 campaign and Judd’s potential 2014 bid: Kentucky voters are much more conservative than Minnesotans. While Franken squeaked by in a Democratic-leaning state in 2008 and is now in good shape to win a second term, any Democrat with Judd’s views on coal and social issues would have major trouble winning. President Obama lost the state by 23 points.