Go ahead, keep attacking Ashley Judd

Even if the actress-activist doesn't win the Kentucky Senate seat, Republicans' attacks will boomerang

Published February 22, 2013 4:32PM (EST)

Ashley Judd          (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
Ashley Judd (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

I have no idea if Ashley Judd would win if she runs against Mitch McConnell, a prospect looking likelier by the day. I would bet, however, that a lot of Republican men are going to make themselves look like misogynist bullies in the process. For Democrats, a Judd candidacy might be a win-win -- if not in Kentucky, then on the national stage.

A couple of weeks ago, Karl Rove went on the O'Reilly Factor to explain why he'd decided to run a campaign video attacking a woman who has not yet declared she's running. "She's going to get to know that she is not going to be able to wait until, you know, the screen writers from California and the producers could make her look good, and prepare the ads and give her lots of lines to memorize so that she can handle these things," he said.

O'Reilly had one question: "If you make her cry, will you feel bad?"

"No, I wouldn't," Rove responded. "O'Reilly, only you could be concerned with making a political figure cry. I mean, please."

I'll give Rove this much: There is no reason Judd should be protected from attacks on her positions and her potential status as a "political figure," just because Bill O'Reilly is in the mood for some unsolicited chivalry. And Rove's attack ad was studiously disciplined, sticking to tying Judd with President Obama and out-of-state values, with only the slightest hint at Hollywood glamour. But Rove didn't show anywhere near that restraint with O'Reilly, unless restraint means not coming right out and calling Judd a dumb, pretty face. Judging by history, the rest of the right just won't be able to help themselves either.

Rand Paul has already jumped right in. "Ashley Judd is a famous actress, she's an attractive woman, and presents herself well, and from what I understand is articulate," Paul told CNN on Feb. 10. "But the thing is, she doesn't really represent Kentucky." (If you weren't already rooting for Judd, perhaps the image of the slimily condescending Paul having to someday partner with her in representing Kentucky will be enough.) And it's only the beginning.

For the record, Judd is more than an "attractive woman." She has a masters in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- the same one, incidentally, achieved by O'Reilly -- and has spent years committed to political activism. It also seems oddly beside the point to argue about intellectual gravitas in an institution where another member once suggested that women who can't afford birth control just Google it, to name one example of exceptional acuity. For his part, Paul once complained in a hearing that it was unfair that women could get abortions when his toilet didn't flush to his satisfaction.

Speaking of reproductive rights, Judd has been pretty vocal on the subject, which proved a winner last year. Yes, her choice of words and lack of apology would probably make the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee itself cringe. (During the Bush administration, Judd gave a speech saying, "Throughout history, men have tried to control the means of reproduction, which means trying to control woman. This president is a modern day Attila the Hun.")

She has been photographed in a T-shirt that said, "This is what a feminist looks like." She uses the word "patriarchy" a lot, which even in last year's feminist frenzy at the Democratic National Convention hasn't been heard on the public stage much lately. She appeared in a hilarious video that gave Rick Santorum, who was "aborting" his campaign, a dose of the same paternalistic claptrap that women seeking abortions are subjected to. She recommends that people read Catharine MacKinnon, and in 2006 she gave a talk on feminism and spirituality in which she said, "Feminism is for me, very simply put, The Truth. It is Satya. Satya is a Sanskrit word that means, 'that which is real,' and, 'the highest truth.'"

How will that play in rural Kentucky? Even then, Judd knew she was in uncertain territory. "You know, I am asked a lot if I will someday run for office, often enough, in fact, that if I had a nickel for each time I’ve been asked, I could fund a campaign," she said in the same lecture. "But a speech like this, such an unguarded chunk of my truth is very likely to completely disqualify me." She may be right, though who knows in these politically volatile times.

What's clear is that the people attacking her will be defining themselves along with Judd. The optics of a bunch of good old boys ganging up on a local girl done good, one who loves University of Kentucky basketball and who is, to borrow Paul's term, quite "articulate," will have national reverberations. Even if the women and men of Kentucky don't rise up to elect her, the women across the country who recoiled at Republicans last year will be paying attention. No wonder Planned Parenthood is targeting McConnell for his opposition to expanding insurance coverage of birth control and voting against equal pay. (What, no mention of his vote against the Violence Against Women Act?)

The same day Rove went on "The O'Reilly Factor," Judd tweeted the following quotation, attributed to Goethe: "There is nothing in which people more betray their character than in what they laugh at." In other words, it looks like she gets it.

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

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Ashley Judd Contraception Mitch Mcconnell Planned Parenthood Senate