Late last week, actress Ashley Judd dined with a handful of influential Democratic insiders in Louisville, Kentucky. The list of invitees at the dinner, held at the home of Christy Brown, the widow of Brown-Forman executive Owsley Brown II and first reported by WHAS 11, was a who's who of Democratic politicians and operatives, including the commonwealth's only Democratic congressman, John Yarmuth, and former party chairman Jonathan Miller.
Judd hasn't decided yet if she'll challenge Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014, but she's certainly laying the ground work for a potential campaign. Judd has talked to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who had success running in a conservative House district in New York before entering the Senate, and has been in touch with the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group, Democratic strategists said.
Miller, who said he thinks Judd is the Democrats' best chance of beating McConnell, suggested how Democrats could exploit what they view as the senior senator's biggest weakness.
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Miller argued that there is a deep anti-Washington sentiment in Kentucky that Judd could effectively exploit, noting it was a key ingredient of the populist tea party movement that helped Sen. Rand Paul win his seat in 2010.
"These days there's nobody who's more of a symbol of Washington than McConnell. She would be wise to avoid left versus right and talk inside versus outside," Miller said. "Going against the ultimate insider is a real asset in this anti-Washington [state]."
McConnell's campaign, headed by former Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton, is cautiously confident.
"We'll have our reaction when we actually get someone to file. We're building the best campaign we possibly can," Benton said.
Even though she's not in the race yet, Karl Rove's conservative super PAC American Crossroads spent $10,000 on a web ad criticizing Judd for backing President Barack Obama. The ad also pointed out that she lives in Tennessee.
Just this week, McConnell's campaign released a new web ad, which links potential Democratic candidates to President Obama, asking asks who will be Obama's Kentucky candidate in 2014. The ad targets Judd, who is seen enthusiastically nominating Obama as a representative of Tennessee at the Democratic National Convention. Kentucky Secretary of State and potential candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes is shown in the ad repeatedly talking about herself in the third person. Obama lost all but four counties in Kentucky in 2012 and did not campaign in the state.
Despite her Volunteer State residence, Democrats argue Judd can demonstrate Kentucky roots.
"While the whole Tennessee stuff is cute and clever, she is identified by Kentuckians as a native and solid Kentuckian. There is only one organized religion in this state, and it's Kentucky basketball. She's a very visible fan," Miller said.