Why Republicans Are Getting Antsy Over Ashley Judd

Michael Catalini
National Journal

Actress Ashley Judd hasn't declared if she'll challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in next year’s Kentucky Senate race. But from the way Republicans are acting, they sound a little bit jumpy about the prospect of her campaign.  

American Crossroads spent $10,000 this week on a Web-only ad exploiting her myriad political weaknesses. The ad pointed out that Judd lives in Tennessee, not Kentucky; she's an actress--how could Hollywood stars relate to down-to-earth Kentuckians?; and, perhaps most damaging, she campaigned vigorously for President Obama, who's unpopular in Kentucky. "I will go wherever the president wants to go," Judd says in a sound bite from the ad.

"A lot of people are pumping a lot of hot air into the Ashley Judd trial balloon," said American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio. "This was designed to pin prick that."

But for an undeclared candidate whose liberal views make her candidacy vulnerable to attack, they’re doing an awful lot to dissuade her from running. Why not wait until she’s actually in the race before launching grade-A opposition research against her? Democrats believe that it’s a sign of how vulnerable McConnell is. Even his own polling, released in December, showed McConnell stuck at 47 percent against Judd, holding only a 4-point lead.

Judd is very serious about running, according to Democratic sources familiar with her thinking. She visited Washington for the presidential inauguration. She attended a luncheon at EMILY's List, the political group that backs pro-choice, Democratic women, and snapped a photo with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill that found its way to Twitter. Perhaps most telling of all, given she's still Private Citizen Judd and not Candidate Judd, she's already replied through a publicist to the attack, reports The Washington Post.

“Ashley thanks Senator McConnell, Karl Rove, and their negative allies for all the attention as she considers her future political plans, although a decision hasn’t been made yet," the publicist said, according to the paper.

Asked how the senator would view a potential Judd candidacy, McConnell's campaign manager Jesse Benton echoed what the leader said at a rally at his reelection headquarters earlier this month

"We're just focused on building an elite campaign and talking to Kentucky voters about Senator McConnell's tremendous leadership," Benton said.

And is the senator hoping Judd will get in the race, or does he prefer that she step aside?

"We're ready for all comers," Benton said.

But why the mind-bending mixed messages?

There's the Crossroads explanation: Clip Judd's wings before her campaign can take off. The prospect of her running has gotten her positive news coverage in the Louisville media market; this would take the shine off the early hype. There’s an informal link between McConnell and Crossroads. Steven Law, who served as McConnell's chief of staff, is president of the outside group. In addition, even if she turned out to be a weak candidate, she'd raise a lot of money and put the GOP on the defensive against the Senate minority leader. Without Judd, there's a chance a vulnerable McConnell could coast without a credible Democratic opponent--with other Democrats more interested in the state's 2015 governor's race.

"Mitch has probably figured out the percentages and is playing the percentages," said Al Cross, a longtime Kentucky pundit and journalism professor at the University of Kentucky.

Another possibility: Right now, the Democratic field is frozen because of Judd’s prospective candidacy. She’d likely clear the field. But some other, possibly stronger Democratic candidates, are waiting in the wings. That list includes Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and former Rep. Ben Chandler. All the lost time means they're not raising money or building a campaign infrastructure. The Crossroads ad is serving a blast of cold air that keeps the race frozen. At least for a while.