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Actress Ashley Judd is getting serious about a possible run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but she may have to win over the state’s coal-friendly Democratic establishment first.
On Valentine’s Day, she dined with some of the state’s top Democratic officials, including Rep. John Yarmuth, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jonathan Miller. Miller told the National Journal that he thinks Judd has the best shot of any Democrat of knocking off McConnell, who is surprisingly weak at home, despite his immense power in Washington. “These days, there’s nobody who’s more of a symbol of Washington than McConnell,” he said, and Judd is a real outsider. “Going against the ultimate insider is a real asset.”
This week, Judd met with officials from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats, though they refuse to comment on the meeting or whom they would like to be the party’s nominee.
With over a dozen Democratic seats in red states up this cycle, defense will probably be Democrats’ top priority. But a DSCC official, speaking on background, told Salon that Kentucky represents one of Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in the country, second only to Georgia. McConnell is the least popular senator in the country, with a recent poll showing only 34 percent of Republicans committed to voting for him. “Whoever runs against him, as long as they have the resources to run a good campaign, and I think they will, will pose a serious threat,” the official said.
The Senate minority leader is vulnerable on his right flank as well, despite his adherence to most conservative orthodoxy and successful leadership of his party in the Senate, and may earn a Tea Party primary challenge.
Already, McConnell and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads have run ads attacking Judd and other potential candidates, which Dems say is a sign of nervousness. The Crossroads ad lampooned the actress as a “Hollywood liberal,” too far to the left for Kentucky, and questioned her state loyalty, as she has lived recently in Tennessee.
Despite the state’s deep-red reputation, it has a Democratic governor and Democratic state House of Representatives. Other potential Democratic candidates are Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who would be a more conventional pick, and former U.S. ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun.
But Judd fans say she would be the most formidable challenge to McConnell because she would enter the race with huge name recognition and attract star power and money to a race that will have plenty of both. Already, liberal activists in Washington and nationally are lining up behind Judd, who could follow in the path broken by fellow actors-turned-politicians like Al Franken, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan.
But first she may have to win over her own party in the state.
A half-dozen former lawmakers, consultants and fundraisers in the state told the Hill last month that they were not sold on Judd, worried she is too liberal and won’t have enough time to make the connections and lay the groundwork for a statewide run. Others told Roll Call that she could hurt Democrats down-ballot.
Others, still, were frustrated that she hadn’t contacted them and other key players in the state yet. “When we discussed this with the governor last week, he indicated that he’s not had that contact yet,” Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said this week.
Progressive activists in the state say the pushback from establishment Democrats is really about coal, the state’s most powerful industry. If Judd runs, one of the biggest issues of the campaign will inevitably be her environmental activism, especially against mountaintop removal.
“Conventional wisdom in Kentucky is that you cannot run and win a statewide race without the blessing of coal,” explained Curtis Morrison, a progressive strategist and blogger who ran for the state Senate last year and is now affiliated with the Progress Kentucky super PAC.
He pointed out that many of the Democratic strategists dissing Judd in the press have ties to coal and coal-friendly candidates: “It’s corrupt, there’s money behind it.”
But, he told Salon, times are changing and Judd could break the paradigm. “Mountaintop removal is such an obscene practice for the people living in Appalachia…that they’ve turned against it. At first they held their tongue, but now coal companies are bailing on miners’ pensions, and people are up in arms,” he said.
A 2011 poll sponsored by the advocacy group Earthjustice found that 57 percent of Kentucky voters oppose mountaintop removal, compared to just 25 percent who support it.
“So you no longer need coal for the votes. But what you do need them for is for the money. Enter Ashley Judd, who can raise that money on her own without coal. It’s unprecedented in this state,” he added.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.
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