Judd has not yet decided whether to take on McConnell, but if she does run in Kentucky, her stance on coal may cause her some headaches.
“Ashley, if she runs, is going to have the time and the media attention to explain why she’s not anti-coal,” said Democrat Jonathan Miller, a former state treasurer and Judd supporter. “Why she’s against mountaintop coal removal but for burning and mining coal in more cleaner, thoughtful ways.”
And state Democrats noted coal is the top issue but not the only one in eastern Kentucky.
Coal “is the dominant issue there, no doubt about that,” said one plugged-in Kentucky Democratic operative, who added it was “insulting” to say eastern Kentucky families don’t care about issues such as health care or education.
Judd will also have to explain her vocal support for Obama in a state where he won only four counties out of 120. Supporters say she’ll be able to hew an independent profile; Republicans have already worked to closely tie her to the president.
Winning support in places such as Pike County are necessary to upset McConnell but not by themselves sufficient. He’s forged a strong electoral bulwark in the western and southern parts of the state. Judd would also need to chip away at areas that voted for McConnell in previous cycles.
“Where is the coalition?” wondered longtime Kentucky Democratic strategist Jimmy Cauley. “Lexington and Louisville do not get her there,” he said, referring to the state’s two biggest cities.
“She’s going to have to, obviously, broaden her base,” said Bruce Lunsford, the Democratic nominee who ran against McConnell in 2008. Lunsford, who strongly supported Judd in an interview, won many urban areas and a number of counties in the eastern part of the state, but he still lost by 6 points.
“That is how McConnell has won every time: He’s done very well across the state,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to McConnell. “To the extent he hasn’t fared well in Louisville and Lexington — and that’s varied cycle to cycle — he’s offset it with big margins elsewhere.”
Insiders familiar with statewide races in Kentucky say that months of personal, face-to-face interactions with the voters — as opposed to just a heavy TV presence — is the only way for Judd to forge a path in a state where handshakes still carry great weight.
“The conservative Democrats who she needs to bring back are going to be distrustful of her on guns, on coal and on abortion,” said Republican consultant Jon Deuser, who ran former Sen. Jim Bunning’s successful 2004 re-election campaign.
Deuser, who doesn’t think Judd can win, said she would have to go into many of the state’s counties and convince voters one by one, because there are swaths of the state with no dominant TV media market and weak Internet penetration.
Judd supporters see her as perfectly poised to do that and to connect with voters with whom she doesn’t share every political position.
“She’s willing to put in the hard work,” said one Judd ally. “There’s going to be common ground. She’s not a knee-jerk liberal like people think she is.”
And, given Judd’s eastern Kentucky roots, allies see Judd at an advantage to connect with people in that part of the state.
Back in Pike County, Rutherford, the judge-executive, said he hoped to see Judd in person.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.