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For Democratic actress and activist Ashley Judd to topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, she will need to go east in her old Kentucky home.
Judd will need to win over and activate a wide swath of conservative Democratic voters, many in eastern Kentucky, who appear wary of her bearish position on coal mining.
Ground zero for Judd will be places such as Pike County, a rural area with a population of about 65,000. Voters in the largest county in the Bluegrass State by area are mostly registered Democrats who are socially conservative and pro-coal.
Democratic Gov. Steven L. Beshear and a handful of other statewide Democrats easily won Pike County in 2011. But President Barack Obama lost it in 2012 by more than 50 points.
And the county’s top elected official said he has deep doubts about Judd.
“Ms. Judd would have to change her stance on coal to win any of the eastern Kentucky coal-producing counties in a statewide election. She needs these counties to win,” Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford, a Democrat, said in statement to CQ Roll Call.
“If she would change her views on coal mining,” he added, “she could win these counties.”
Other Democrats in the state have articulated similar positions to Rutherford’s. The judge-executive essentially serves as the county’s CEO.
“There’s no question that the issue of coal and her position on mountaintop mining, in my opinion, would be harmful to her in coal regions of the commonwealth of Kentucky,” state Rep. Rocky Adkins, the Democratic floor leader, told local TV station cn|2 in February.
Judd has called mountaintop-removal coal mining a “scourge on our people and on our land.”
Judd has not announced a campaign yet, but she appears poised to launch one in the next few months.
As a political candidate, her position on coal could soften and evolve.
The issue can be something of an Achilles’ heel for Democrats in Kentucky, and candidates seen as opposed to coal don’t often win elections in areas of the state where it has a strong presence in industry or culture.
Judd’s supporters say her position on the abundant hydrocarbon contains a lot of nuance.
“They want to paint her as this bleeding heart who wants to [only] save the owls,” said Silas House, a professor at Berea College in Kentucky and close friend of Judd. “But she’s absolutely nuanced on this [coal] issue, and one of her main concerns is the economy.”