Ashley Judd is Out, But It'll Be Harder Than That to Beat McConnell

Michael Catalini
National Journal

Democrats in Kentucky who were nervous about a potential Ashley Judd candidacy got their wish. The actress announced she won’t be running in 2014 against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But there’s more to beating the commonwealth’s longest-serving senator than clearing the field of Judd. She was viewed as a potential fundraising phenom but she was also vulnerable because she lived in Tennessee and made it easy for McConnell to tie her to President Barack Obama. Obama, whom Judd vocally supported in 2012, lost Kentucky by nearly 23 points. Her criticism of the coal industry’s mountain top removal practices wouldn’t have helped her.

Some Bluegrass State Democrats are hoping Judd’s departure sets the stage for the possible candidacy of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose name Democrats have been floating as a more electable alternative to Judd. Grimes won statewide election in 2012 and comes from a powerful political family. She also recently spoke with former President Bill Clinton before an event in Owensboro, Ky., according to several Kentucky Democrats. Clinton reportedly urged her to consider running. It’s not clear yet if she’ll get into the race.

Republicans, however, are feeling increasingly optimistic about the contest, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee suggesting that the decision of other Democrats such as Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. John Yarmuth to pass on the race spells smooth sailing for McConnell.

"The hollow DSCC spin that Kentucky will be competitive still hasn't made its way to the Bluegrass State. The Democrats first ten choices to run against Senator McConnell have now walked away from the race. Perhaps #11 is a lucky charm?" asked NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring. The DSCC disputes the list, saying they do not discuss recruiting. 

Judd’s decision not to run comes after months of hype, which included high-profile dinners in Louisville with Democratic donors and support from advocacy groups such as Emily’s List.

Still, McConnell has reason to be wary. Polls show he is vulnerable. A Louisville Courier-Journal poll showed that just 17 percent of Kentucky voters planned to support McConnell for another term. McConnell's own campaign released a poll earlier this year that showed him leading the actress by only 4 points, something that Democrats in Washington have seized on. They also point to advertising run on behalf of the Kentucky Republican against Judd as evidence that McConnell has reason to be nervous. 

"McConnell so desperate he launched ads 20 months before his reelection compaign," said DSCC spokesman Matt Canter on Twitter.