FRANKFORT, Ky. — Campaign aides to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell proposed using actress Ashley Judd's past bouts with depression against her if she had decided to challenge him in his re-election bid next year, according to a secret recording posted by a magazine.
Mother Jones released a recording Tuesday along with an article about a private meeting in which the aides discussed opposition research into potential Democratic challengers. Aides talked and laughed on the recording about Judd's political positions, religious beliefs and past bouts of depression.
The FBI is looking into how the recording was made after the McConnell campaign accused opponents of engaging in "Watergate-era tactics." The magazine reported that the recording was provided last week by a source who requested anonymity.
"She's clearly – this sounds extreme – but she is emotionally unbalanced," a McConnell aide said of Judd during a February meeting at the Louisville campaign headquarters. "I mean it's been documented ... she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the `90s."
Judd has been open about her bouts with depression. She spoke to the American Counseling Association's national convention in Cincinnati in March, telling more than 3,000 counselors from across the country about her experiences. Her spokeswoman, Cara Tripicchio, criticized the McConnell campaign for considering making it a campaign issue.
"This is yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington DC," Tripicchio said in a statement. "We expected nothing less from Mitch McConnell and his camp than to take a personal struggle such as depression, which many Americans cope with on a daily basis, and turn it into a laughing matter."
McConnell was asked several times at a news conference Tuesday about the propriety of attacking Judd over depression. He did not directly answer, but repeatedly brought up an incident last month, when Progress Kentucky tweeted an insensitive remark about his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
"As you know, my wife's ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky and apparently they also bugged my headquarters," he said. "So I think that pretty well sums up the way the political left is operating in Kentucky."
The FBI confirmed that it was contacted by McConnell's office and was looking into the matter. The magazine's Washington bureau chief, David Corn, said in a statement that the magazine wasn't involved in making the tape but understood it wasn't the result of bugging.
"We are still waiting for Sen. Mitch McConnell to comment on the substance of the article," the statement said. "Before posting, we contacted his Senate office and his campaign office – in particular, his campaign manager, Jesse Benton – and no one responded. As the story makes clear, we were recently provided with the tape by a source who wishes to remain anonymous. We published the article on the tape due to its obvious newsworthiness."
Corn continued, "We were not involved in the making of the tape, but it is our understanding that the tape was not the product of any kind of bugging operation. We cannot comment beyond that, except to say that under the circumstances, our publication of the article is both legal and protected by the First Amendment."
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton alleged in an email to supporters that "liberals and their media allies" were "wire-tapping our field office to spy on us," even though it wasn't clear how the recording was obtained. Benton used the issue as a fundraising appeal, asking supporters to send donations "to help us spread the truth."
On the recording posted on Mother Jones' website, McConnell began the meeting by telling aides the campaign had entered "the Whac-A-Mole period" and explained that means "when anybody sticks their head up, do them out."
The magazine reported the aides huddled on Feb. 2 in a private meeting to discuss potential Democratic opponents, including Judd and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes, a rising star within the Kentucky Democratic Party, hasn't ruled herself out as a challenger.
An unidentified aide said Judd had made a public statement as a Tennessee delegate to the Democratic national convention about her support of President Barack Obama, an unpopular figure in Kentucky. The aide said that statement could be used against her and raised another issue: Judd lives in Tennessee, not Kentucky.
In another instance, the aide played a recording of Judd talking about her evolving religious beliefs, which included native faith practices. The aides laugh loudly. An unidentified man then says "the people at Southeast Christian would take to the streets with pitchforks," referring to an evangelical megachurch in Louisville.
The magazine was the first to report about Republican Mitt Romney's comments to donors paying $50,000 apiece to attend a private reception that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, see themselves as victims and believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.
Romney's critics used the video to argue that he was out of touch with average Americans during the last presidential campaign.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said the recording is telling about McConnell.
"I certainly do not know anything about how this may have happened," Logsdon said. "However, it's clear that this is the McConnell we all know: leading a negative, nasty campaign determined to lash out at his opponents since he doesn't have any accomplishments to point to."
Associated Press writers Jim Abrams and Donna Cassata in Washington and Brett Barrouquere in Louisville contributed to this report.