LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Ashley Judd, the 44-year-old actress and social activist, has told key advisers and political figures that she is planning to announce her candidacy for U.S. Senate here this spring.
Judd told one close ally that she plans to announce her run for the Democratic nomination for the 2014 race “around Derby” -- meaning in early May when the Kentucky Derby brings national attention to Louisville and the Bluegrass State.
Reached for comment by email Saturday, Judd offered a not-quite-ironclad denial to The Huffington Post. “I am not sure who is saying this stuff, but it is not I! I’d prefer as a fan of your journalism that you stay accurate and credible. We told everyone who called us yesterday these stories are fabrications.”
But she declined to specify which "stories,” did not say what wasn't "accurate,” and did not respond when asked directly whether she had, in fact, decided to run or chosen a time to declare her intentions.
“I know she knows she has to declare soon,” said one source, a highly placed elected official who declined to be identified because he was discussing private plans.
"She could always change her mind," he added. "I changed my mind twice before I finally declared. But as of now it is a done deal.” She has discussed her plans, sources say, with former Gov. Wendell H. Ford, the 88-year-old dean of Kentucky Democrats, among others.
The announcement, her allies told The Huffington Post, could “clear the field” of major contenders for the Democratic nomination, setting up a wild, made-for-YouTube contest between the free-wheeling, media-savvy Hollywood actress and the methodically accusatory machine of the five-term Republican senator -- and Senate minority leader -- Mitch McConnell of Louisville.
Judd, sources say, is working with New York pollster Jefrey Pollock; has interviewed a number of media consultants including Anita Dunn, formerly of the Obama campaigns, and J.B. Poersch, the former head of the Democrats' national senate campaign committee, as well as leaders of Emily's List; and is lining up allies and field organizers. Advisers in Lexington are working on her filing papers and other technical issues.
As early as last summer, according to a top Democratic fundraiser with ties to President Barack Obama, Judd discussed the role of a woman candidate in a Senate race with another Pollock client, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Judd has some prominent backers in the state, led by Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville; Christy Brown, whose family controls the Brown-Forman distilling fortune; and Brown’s son-in-law Matthew Barzun, the former ambassador to Sweden (and probable future ambassador to the United Kingdom), who was Obama’s finance chairman in the 2012 campaign.
Normally a candidate such as Judd would have to fight through a difficult field of seasoned, and generally more conservative, Kentucky Democrats. But several of them are focused instead on the governor’s race in 2015, and others doubt whether they could beat the experienced and tough McConnell.
The Kentucky Democratic establishment gathered in Owensboro Wednesday night at a banquet -- headlined by former President Bill Clinton -- in Ford’s honor and much of the private talk centered on which Democrat, if any, could mount a primary challenge against Judd, whose candidacy many of them fear.
“We don’t really have anybody,” said one.
The most likely alternative is Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 34-year-old secretary of state. The well-connected daughter of former Democratic state chairman Jerry Lundergan, Grimes is polite, earnest and cautious. She recently worked to ensure that Kentuckians in the military serving abroad could vote electronically.
Her father was a prominent Clinton supporter, and the former president took time in Owensboro to privately advise Grimes and her father after the Ford event.
But asked by The Huffington Post whom he supported in the Kentucky U.S. Senate race, Clinton demurred. “I don’t know because I have to wait and see who gets in,” he said.
Currently a resident of Nashville, Tenn., where other members of the performing Judd clan have ties, Judd must establish a new residence in Kentucky by November 2013. Under Kentucky law, candidates must have been residents of the commonwealth for a year before Election Day.
She is expected to live in Lexington, where she studied at the University of Kentucky and still attends UK basketball games. In fact, when interviewed on Saturday via email, Judd was busy watching her beloved Wildcats on TV.
A champion of global women’s rights and an ardent environmentalist, Judd admittedly would start her campaign with more ties in Hollywood than in the old-fashioned courthouses of Kentucky’s 120 (mostly rural) counties.
Some Democrats, here and in Washington, fear that Judd is just the kind of glamorous liberal the GOP loves to run against in Kentucky and across the country. Some are concerned that the GOP will make her candidacy a national cause.
But Judd is smart, feisty and charming, and probably can, as one local here put it, “out-Kentucky and out-country” the Louisville-based, owlishly professorial McConnell in a state where down-home, one-handshake-at-a-time style still matters.
Judd made her intentions clear at a private dinner last month at Brown's Louisville home. Asked if she was tough enough to take on McConnell and the GOP national attack machine, Judd reportedly answered, “I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.”
Judd was born in California, but spent most of her youth and school years in Kentucky. A Democrat who has been an advocate for causes for years, she more recently began focusing on a career in electoral politics after enrolling at Harvard in 2009 to obtain a master’s in public administration.
Judd considered running for office in Tennessee before turning her attention to Kentucky, according to one of her leading supporters in Louisville.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose leaders were cool to the high-risk but intriguing Judd candidacy, in recent days has taken new polls that show McConnell -- never an overwhelming winner despite his lofty status -- is more vulnerable to a Judd campaign than originally thought.
Judd would hardly be a textbook candidate in a mostly red state with a Democratic governor that has not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Clinton in 1996. “Kentucky has changed a lot in recent years,” said Crit Luallen, the former state auditor and a potential candidate for governor.
Being an “environmentalist” in Kentucky is a tricky matter. Among other things, Judd is a foe of “mountain-top removal” in strip mining, a hideous practice but nevertheless one that is defended in much of the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky. Those who oppose it are seen as outsiders who don’t understand the mountains.
This week she got some political cover on that issue as state Rep. Greg Stumbo of Eastern Kentucky took a strong public position against the practice.
Judd is given to cultural statements that might sound acceptably thought-provoking in Los Angeles but not necessarily so in conservative Kentucky -- such as her comment that she didn’t want to have children because there is too much suffering and poverty in the world.
She is an ardent Obama supporter and progressive on most social issues. She recently announced the end of her marriage to her race-car driver husband, and racy pictures and video from her movie career are plentiful and easy to find on the Internet. She writes movingly and openly about the challenges she faces from her bipolar disorder.
But Judd was born to campaign. A fighter by nature, she has a quick wit and the ability to raise far more money – not to mention engender more free national and local media – than all of McConnell’s past Democratic foes put together.
She is fearless, and would not necessarily lose a bar fight if she got into one, which she is about to do.