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Actress Ashley Judd’s movement toward a Senate run against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell makes Democrats in Washington, D.C., happy.
But back in Kentucky, for many Bluegrass State Democrats, a potential Judd run brings a different feeling: heartburn.
“If she runs, I think that it would be a catastrophe for a lot of downballot races in Kentucky,” said Jimmy Cauley, a longtime Kentucky Democratic strategist who doesn’t believe Judd can win a general election. Among Democratic state legislators, he said, “there is significant worry about Ashley being on the ballot.”
Democrats plugged into the Frankfort, Ky., zeitgeist publicly and privately confirmed those sentiments. The crux of their worry is this: As a celebrity and strong supporter of President Barack Obama, Judd’s position at the top of the ticket could nationalize state and local races. They see her losing the Senate contest — an uphill climb for any Democrat — and potentially poisoning the conservative brand of some state Democrats.
For years, the Kentucky Democratic Party has racked up significant successes at the state and local level, from the governor’s mansion down the ballot. But in federal elections, Republicans have won victory after victory. In November, Obama lost the state, winning less than 38 percent of the vote.
“I have yet to talk to an elected official in Kentucky — other than [Rep.] John [Yarmuth] — who thinks Ashley should run or thinks she can prevail in this contest,” Kentucky Democratic consultant Dale Emmons said.
Yarmuth, Kentucky’s sole Democrat in Congress, has been Judd’s loudest cheerleader since he first floated her name last year. In an interview with CQ Roll Call this week, he said “she’d be a very strong candidate” and called her “the top prospect” for a McConnell challenge.
But pressed on local Democrats’ unease about Judd, Yarmuth shot back.
“Do they have a better idea?” he asked. “Because if they do, they ought to come forward.”
Another Democratic worry about Judd is her position against mountaintop removal coal mining, which she has called a “scourge.” It remains a divisive issue in the state.
Yarmuth said he understands her “issues” but doesn’t think she’ll be a downballot drag. “Once people would see her, listen to her passion, listen to her commitment to the Commonwealth, I think she can overcome those potential obstacles,” Yarmuth said. He said her support of Obama and her opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining wouldn’t hurt her.
Yarmuth and Judd allies note that polling shows a vast majority of Kentucky voters know who she is and that she would begin a matchup within range of McConnell.
Despite the numbers, the specter of a Judd run and Yarmuth’s vocal support for her has Democrats such as Cauley fuming.
“If John Yarmuth wants to be highest ranking Democrat in the state of Kentucky, he should keep pushing Ashley Judd,” Cauley said. “Because we will lose the Legislature and we will lose the governor’s office and he’ll be the only one left.”
Yarmuth called Cauley’s comments “outrageous” and untrue. “We’re not going to lose control of Frankfort,” the four-term lawmaker said.
But Judd’s potential bid comes at a pivotal moment for state Democrats. Republicans already control the state Senate. If the GOP nets six seats in the state House in 2014, the party will take the chamber.
Another reason some Democrats are anxious about a Judd bid? They fear the focus will be on her celebrity, instead of McConnell. Public polls have shown a plurality of Kentuckians view McConnell unfavorably, and national Democrats believe he is vulnerable.
“Any number of Democrats have the ability to mount a credible challenge against him,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky said, “and the longer he continues voting against the people of Kentucky, the more likely it is that a strong candidate will send him packing.”
Many names have been floated as potential McConnell challengers — Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is mentioned most often — but few appear to be seriously considering a run.
That’s the result of two political realities in the Bluegrass State.
First, Judd’s trial balloon has frozen the Democratic field. Any other would-be candidates will probably wait until she makes a decision. Second, local Democrats see two more appealing opportunities to run statewide on the horizon: the open 2015 gubernatorial race and Sen. Rand Paul’s 2016 re-election race.
Ambitious Democrats can run in either contest and avoid McConnell’s potent opposition-research and fundraising operations. At the end of last year, McConnell had $7.4 million in the bank.
Judd’s backers say Democrats who fear her candidacy have it all wrong.
“I know a number of people who are critical of her haven’t met her yet,” said a prominent Kentucky Democrat who knows Judd. The source said these Democrats have bought into the “narrative of her as doctrinaire liberal.”
“But those of us who have met her know she’s not going to run an Elizabeth Warren campaign in Kentucky,” the source said, referring to Massachusetts’ famously progressive senior senator.
Judd might not run with Warren’s views, but there are aspects of the Massachusetts Democrat’s campaign that she could replicate to her advantage. Judd would galvanize the grass roots, and the race to defeat the top Senate Republican would become a national cause, bringing in big bucks in the process.
She would be “innovative and forward-thinking,” said Silas House, a close friend of Judd and a professor at Berea College.
Republicans have already attacked Judd for not being a true Kentuckian. A recent ad by the Republican group American Crossroads used video of her saying, “and it just clicked, Tennessee is home.”
But House said he doesn’t “know a prouder Kentuckian than Ashley Judd. She’s so proud of her roots in eastern Kentucky and throughout her whole career and her life, she’s celebrated that in every way.”
“The polling shows the immense reservoir of good will she has in the state,” said a Democratic source supportive of a potential Judd run. “This isn’t a carpetbagger. This is someone who [Kentuckians] believe that they know and they like.”
Still, many Kentucky Republicans would celebrate a Judd run and are watching for signs of a decision.
Bluegrass State Democratic legislators are watching too — with caution.
“Ashley Judd is very bright young lady. Lots of talent,” said Democratic state Sen. Dennis Parrett, who represents a conservative district. He paused for a long time. “But I’m not sure that she needs to run for U.S. senator.”