Does Ashley Judd have the chops to defeat Mitch McConnell in next year's U.S. Senate race in Kentucky? Already the possibility of a Judd-McConnell matchup has spawned a mini-tornado of media speculation, not to mention a Karl Rove-sponsored attack ad. If and when Judd actually tosses her hat into the ring, the race would automatically become the marquee political story of 2014.
For a non-traditional candidate like Judd, a Senate run poses both opportunity and risk. A realistic assessment of her prospects begins with an acknowledgement of the challenges she faces, particularly in three key areas: show business, roots, and politics.
THE SHOW BUSINESS CHALLENGE: When entertainers run for office, they bring along a complicated set of associations, associations that inevitably color how voters perceive them. These associations can be positive, negative, or some combination thereof. The trick for professional performers transitioning into politics is to maximize the good feelings, sprinkle pixie dust over the bad, and get voters to accept them in a newly defined role.
Can Judd pull this off? In recent years she has reinvented herself as an activist and policy wonk, earning a masters degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. For years Judd has devoted herself to a range of causes, from international AIDS awareness to wildlife preservation. Compared with other entertainers who have run for office, Ashley Judd steps into the ring well prepared. She is more Al Franken than Sonny Bono.
She is also undeniably glamorous. On the one hand, this constitutes an enormous gift -- good looks and star power never hurt anyone in a political campaign. Yet too much glamour could backfire if it ends up alienating the home folks of Kentucky or if it undercuts the seriousness of her message. Clearly Judd's opponents will seek to turn this potential asset into a major liability -- they've already started.
Deployed properly, however, Judd's status as a Hollywood actress can make the campaign trail something of a glide path. The skills she has mastered -- storytelling, empathy, projecting that extra bit of energy that's the mark of a genuine star -- are also skills required in politics. Entertainers dedicate their entire lives to selling a product: themselves. So do elected officials.
All entertainers-turned-politicians must reckon with the baggage of their careers. In Judd's case, this is likely to involve the sexually suggestive nature of some of her film work. If her Republican opponents see an opening here, they act upon it at their peril. A party already regarded as anti-woman would be playing with fire to make an issue of Judd's on-screen nudity.
No skeletons appear to be lurking in the closets of Judd's personal life. Earlier this year she and her racecar driver husband announced their intention to divorce, amicably, and a 2011 autobiography bared uncomfortable family secrets. Barring any unforeseen revelations of a disqualifying nature, Ashley Judd would seem to enter the race with nothing more scandalous in her past than a make-out scene with Salma Hayek in Frida.
Being a Hollywood celebrity opens innumerable doors to Judd. From a fund-raising standpoint, she could hardly be better situated. Whoever clinches the Democratic nomination will reap millions of dollars in contributions from those hoping to take down the Senate Minority Leader. Judd's connections in the entertainment community give her entrée to millions more.
Celebrity confers upon Judd a media megaphone. Everything she says and does will be widely covered and commented upon, creating a platform not just for her own candidacy but also for her ideas. Such a prospect must be very tempting to someone who cares deeply about policy. Although this platform lets Judd be heard, it also magnifies any awkward moments. For the duration of the campaign, she will need to exercise extraordinary control over her self-presentation.
One more thought regarding Ashley Judd's celebrity: Against the charisma-challenged Mitch McConnell, she holds every advantage when it comes to commanding the public spotlight. Imagine them in a televised debate, two stylistically disparate individuals going toe to toe in live combat. No scriptwriter could come up with an unlikelier pair.
THE ROOTS CHALLENGE: Judd spent much of her peripatetic childhood in Kentucky, graduated from the state university, and hails from a long line of Kentuckians. Despite these connections to the Bluegrass State, her opponents will paint Judd as a carpetbagger because for the past twenty years she has lived primarily in Tennessee.
Obviously, if she plans to seek office from Kentucky, she will need to move there, and soon. It might make political sense for her to relocate not to urban Louisville or Lexington, but back to her hardscrabble hometown of Ashland on the Ohio River. Basing herself in Ashland would plant Judd's personal narrative front and center. It's a story worth repeating, because her journey to Hollywood stardom from humble local beginnings establishes an instant connection with voters. She's the Kentucky girl who made it big and decided to come home to work on behalf of her community. Frank Capra couldn't concoct a better premise.
Judd should tap into her Nashville music connections -- her mother and half-sister are both country singers-to reinforce cultural affinity with Kentucky voters. Ashley Judd is an entertainer, so why shouldn't her campaign be entertaining? At the same time, Judd must take care not to overdo the celebrity campaigners, especially when it comes to Hollywood types.
Judd would be well advised to study the example of Hillary Clinton, another candidate accused of carpetbagging. Like Clinton, Judd should launch her campaign with a Kentucky-wide listening tour, hearing people's stories, learning what voters in the state care about and what they expect from government. Similarly, Judd should avoid national media and cultivate local journalists. Not only is this smart in the short-term; it could also yield dividends if she wins election and needs these same reporters down the line.
THE POLITICS CHALLENGE: How plausible is an Ashley Judd victory? Is she, as Kentucky's Republican junior senator Rand Paul put it, "way damn too liberal" to be elected as a red-state senator? A Judd win may not be not as farfetched as it appears. Kentucky is a border state, where Democrats have not gone extinct (though no Democrat has been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1992). As senator, Judd could position herself, a la Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, as a progressive advocate for the disadvantaged in a socially conservative state.
If she makes the run, Judd will have to balance two imperatives: staying true to her convictions without letting herself get too far ahead of Kentucky voters. Past pronouncements on issues like coal mining may come back to haunt Judd, yet they also give her an opening to explain herself, to initiate a dialogue. She will need to be ready with answers for her previous statements, but statements are easier to defend than a voting record.
As a candidate, Judd must establish herself from the outset as a people's politician, an outsider willing to fight for the powerless. McConnell, a creature of Washington if there ever was one, appears highly vulnerable on this point. In a recent Louisville Courier Journal poll, only 17 percent of those surveyed said they would vote to give him another term.
Against McConnell, Judd presents the home state electorate with a vastly different alternative. Defeating him may be an uphill climb, but McConnell has never faced an opponent like Judd, and he could easily end up overplaying his hand. If Judd has the stomach for a race, she is perfectly situated to campaign on a counter-narrative, one with great public appeal. Ashley Judd brings to the arena enough strength and enough potential to make this a real Kentucky horse race.