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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.”
“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.
“If she truly wants to run, I would encourage her to meet with me,” he said.
Judd would have history on her side in the state’s eastern corner: Every Democratic opponent of McConnell going back to 1984 has won Pike County.
But statewide, no one has ever defeated him.