We probably should have seen this coming at some point, but it was a surprise last week when, shortly after the presidential election wrapped up, a rumor starting floating that actress Ashley Judd might take on Kentucky’s senior U.S. Senator, Mitch McConnell, in 2014.
Of course, there were the knee-jerk reactions from people who don’t like the idea of celebrities running for office, those whose business is mocking everything (we saw you, Gawker), and those who disagree with Judd’s liberal viewpoints, particularly on coal.
But we should have seen this coming. In the past decade, Judd, 44, has devoted as much, if not more, time to politics and activism as she has to acting. She notably went back to school to earn a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard in 2010. Let’s check that chatter about her not being a serious commenter on issues right now.
People who complain about entertainers getting into politics are really complaining about entertainers who disagree with their viewpoints getting into politics. Talk to those opposed to Hollywood’s typically leftist politics and you’ll probably find many who count Bedtime for Bonzo star Ronald Reagan as their favorite president.
Judd is an entertainer with a serious interest in politics, a liberal with deep roots, although not current residence, in what is an increasingly conservative state.
Should she run?
Here are some things to consider.
She would be taking on one of the most powerful men in the country, and arguably the most powerful politician in Kentucky. Stepping into a U.S. Senate race against McConnell could be a akin to stepping into the boxing ring for the first time against another Kentuckian, Muhammad Ali.
But maybe not Ali in his prime.
In 2008, the most recent time McConnell, 70, was up for re-election, Bruce Lunsford gave him something of a race, losing by little more than 100,000 votes. After last week’s election, McConnell looks weaker: Republicans lost Senate seats, and he did not achieve his stated goal of Republicans of making Barack Obama a one-term president. As a big-name opponent with a lot of friends around the country, Judd might give McConnell a stiff challenge.
But so could some other Democrats. Despite the redness in the commonwealth on a federal level, there are a few Kentucky Democrats who probably are considering runs against McConnell. Judd could risk alienating some of those in the party if she is perceived to be stepping ahead in line.
Then there are the voters. Judd is one of the chief cheerleaders for one of the great uniters in the Bluegrass State: the University of Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team. But she is a controversial person, particularly in her homeland, Eastern Kentucky, where she is perceived to be anti-coal, after her participation in a number of rallies against moutaintop-removal coal mining. She might want to call up outgoing U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler (D-Versailles) for some tips on what being perceived as anti-coal can do to your prospects in a Kentucky election.
That and her international activism have earned her a reputation as being more concerned with issues overseas and international political compatriots such as Bono than with the struggles of her fellow Eastern Kentuckians.
If Judd is to have a prayer of winning, she would have a lot of work to do to convince Eastern Kentucky, particularly coal miners and her families, that she is concerned about them and will represent their concerns, and that her issues are with the mining executives, not the men and women who go underground every day to support their families. Judd would need to come up with concrete ideas on how Eastern Kentucky can prosper in a post-coal era.
She would also have to re-establish Kentucky residency to run; where she chooses to live could make a big statement.
And yes, Judd will have to convince skeptics that she is a serious candidate, even with that Harvard degree. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but there are precedents. If she is considering a run, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) ought to be one of the first phone calls she makes. He made the journey from comedian to legislator fairly well.
She might also call her screen buddy Morgan Freeman to voice over some ads for her. It seemed to work for Obama.
If Judd does run, it would be the Senate race of the year in 2014, particularly if the next two years are rocky for Republicans and McConnell. Regardless, the contest could make her wish she was pursuing Oscars instead of public office. Political opponents and the media make movie critics and celebrity tabloid writers look downright congenial.
It’s all up to Judd, if she wants to throw her Derby hat into the ring.