Kentucky Democrats not sold on possible Ashley Judd Senate campaign

Kentucky Democrats are warning that a Senate campaign by actress Ashley Judd might be unrealistic — and even harmful to the party.

Judd triggered renewed speculation about a potential 2014 bid against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) with appearances last weekend at several inaugural parties.

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But there’s little indication she’s actually taken steps to launch a bid.

A half-dozen Kentucky political operatives, former lawmakers and fundraisers contacted by The Hill said that she had not been in touch with them and that they had not heard from others that she was putting feelers out for a run.

Judd has offered no indication she’ll be moving back to Kentucky anytime soon, something strategists in the commonwealth say must be the first step for the actress, who grew up there but calls Tennessee her home.

Their frustration with Judd might be more a reflection of an overall perception in the state that McConnell is weak, but a challenger has yet to emerge.

“Whoever runs against him is gonna have a bloody nose. I do think he's vulnerable against the right candidate, but the right candidate has to reflect all of Kentucky, not just parts of Kentucky,” former Democratic Senate candidate Daniel Mongiardo told The Hill.

Mongiardo, considered one of the state’s more centrist Democrats, represented rural parts of Kentucky during his time in the state Senate, and operatives say his endorsement would work to boost any candidate’s bona fides outside of the liberal-leaning cities of Louisville and Lexington.

Mongiardo said that he hadn’t spoken with Judd, and that while she is clearly an intelligent woman, she’d have issues with the coal-dependent parts of Kentucky. He said that's because of her comments last summer in which she expressed opposition to mountaintop mining, calling it “state-sanctioned, federal government-supported, coal industry-operated rape.”

He said even if she ran unopposed in a primary, he’d want to sit down and talk with her about some of her positions on issues like coal mining before endorsing her.

Judd’s lack of an operation this far out from 2014 is not unusual for most candidates, but Kentucky Democrats say that anyone who hopes to topple McConnell — whom many in Kentucky said is one of the nation’s top politickers, and knows how to work the state — needs to start soon.

“It takes at least a year to travel the state extensively, to make the friends and establish the structure that you need to have. Really, it would take two years if you're trying to raise that type of money and you don't have the type of connections she would need to have,” Mongiardo said.

It’s not beyond imagination for a candidate to start early. At least one other prospective Democratic candidate who is likely to face a primary challenge has already created a campaign committee and is fundraising and reaching out to operatives in the state: New Jersey’s Cory Booker.

Dale Emmons, a Kentucky Democratic strategist who last worked with Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in her race for the position, said that while any possible contender still has time to make a decision, every day without the emergence of a challenger is a day wasted.

“There's some time for this to play out, but we don’t need to waste a lot of time on a fantasy. We need a real candidate,” he said.

He went on to echo the concern of multiple Kentucky Democrats that the speculation surrounding a Judd candidacy is freezing the field, and that other candidates are wary of entering while so much national attention is focused on Judd.

“She can play around and then find out what she's really doing is keeping quality candidates from getting in,” he said.

But Judd did post the strongest challenge of all Democrats polled against McConnell in a December survey from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, getting 43 percent support to McConnell’s 47.

Democratic strategist Kim Geveden, who worked for Mongiardo in his Senate bid, said that he doesn’t believe Judd is preventing any candidates from emerging, and that any serious contender would be willing to come out and say it at this point. He said that people might not be giving Judd enough credit as a credible challenger.

“In the absence of someone like [former State Auditor] Crit Luallen or [Attorney General] Jack Conway running, or perhaps Alison Lundergan Grimes or [State Auditor] Adam Edelen, absent someone like that with the capacity to raise money and the connections across the state, she would be a more formidable candidate than a lot of people give her credit for being,” he said.

None of those potential candidates have yet indicated they’re looking at a bid, though Lundergan Grimes has been contacted about running for Senate and a number of other statewide positions.

And Jennifer Moore, who co-chairs an organization working to increase the number of Democratic female politicians in Kentucky with Judd, said that she believes Judd would be able to separate her personal views from her policy and defuse the political potency of her position on coal mining.

“She knows Kentucky, she’s spent a lot of time here, she’s lived here and she loves the state. And I think she will understand that there's a time and place to promote a personal agenda and a time and place to promote what's best for Kentucky,” she said.

Still, the perception of Judd as a “Hollywood liberal” might be a hard one for the actress to shake, particularly if McConnell spent the same $20 million he spent on his last race trying to make it stick.

And Judd has long been a supporter of President Obama, stumping for him during both his presidential campaigns and even acting as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, for Tennessee.

That could be a serious problem for a Democratic candidate in a state where 60 percent of voters backed Republican Mitt Romney on Election Day.

And it could ultimately be a problem for down-ballot candidates as well. Multiple Democrats expressed concern that having a candidate like Judd at the top of the ticket would be detrimental to state and federal legislators, who will also be on the ballot in 2014.

“If [Republicans] nationalize this election and take the focus away from our local communities, it would be a catastrophe that would take years to correct,” Emmons said.

Judd appeared at at least three inauguration parties this weekend and one event for a political organization, EMILY’s List, after which she snagged a ride from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

“Maybe Senate candidate Ashley Judd hitched a ride with us. Gonna meet again at Rupp arena in a month,” McCaskill tweeted, along with a picture of herself and the actress sitting side by side.

It wasn’t just McCaskill’s tweet that sparked renewed speculation about Judd; asked multiple times this weekend about her intentions, Judd frequently demurred.

“I am certainly taking a close look at it,” she told Louisville Courier-Journal at the Kentucky Society of Washington’s Bluegrass Ball, at which she was honored for her humanitarian work.

At one point, three top donors in the state — Jerry Lundergan, a big donor in Kentucky and father of Lundergan Grimes; Nathan Smith, a former Kentucky Democratic Party vice chairman and a top fundraiser for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio); and another Kentucky donor — were standing outside the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, when they spied Judd walking in and said hello.

“We’re all three from Kentucky,” Lundergan told Judd.

“Oh, great!” Judd responded, and walked into the hotel without another word.

Smith said it was possible she had no idea that the men were key political players in the state, but he added that, if he were planning a bid, he’d have stopped to say hi to every Kentuckian he met.

Smith said he has not been contacted by Judd about her bid.

And McConnell is particularly good at the people aspect of politics. Democrats expressed concern that Judd wouldn’t be willing or able to do the kind of retail politicking that McConnell is known for; that, as a “movie star,” she would be averse to the rubber-chicken dinners and high-school-gym meet-and-greets that characterize Kentucky politics.

Ultimately, Smith said, Judd will have to decide soon, as what’s really hurting the party’s chances going into 2014 is the wait for a candidate.

“Every day that the Democrats don't settle on someone to run against McConnell is a day lost,” he said.

“We've got to decide who's gonna take on Darth Vader.”