Kentucky Democrats Are Afraid Ashley Judd Really Is Running for Senate

The actress seems to be readying a run against Mitch McConnell, and that worries Bluegrass Staters who fear she could hurt the party.

Ashley Judd cheers for the University of Kentucky during the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

The honeymoon is over for Ashley Judd.

At a time when Democrats in Washington are having second thoughts about embracing Ashley Judd as their standard-bearer against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014, Kentucky Democrats are waving red flags about the actress, arguing that her candidacy plays into the GOP's strengths and tarnishes the party brand in the Bluegrass State.

"She's gonna have a tough row to hoe," said Jim Cauley, who ran Governor Steve Beshear's 2007 campaign and also worked on President Obama's 2004 Senate campaign. "She doesn't fit the damn state. That's her problem. I don't think she fits the voters of the state of Kentucky."

As she gets closer to an announcement of her intentions, Judd has garnered national media attention. Strategists predict that a Judd-McConnell faceoff would be one of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races in recent years. Judd's backers say she is the only Democrat who could raise enough money to not only attack McConnell's record, but also beat Kentucky's longest-serving senator.

Other Democrats in the state, including a top donor in Northern Kentucky, disagree. They argue she has not been in the state enough to mount a credible attack on McConnell, who will be ready for the fight. Karl Rove's super PAC American Crossroads attacked Judd with a web video earlier this year for living in Tennessee.

"I'm in this to win it, and I don't believe Ashley Judd is in it to win it," said Nathan Smith, a leading Kentucky Democratic donor, who is also the head of the Manufactured Housing Institute. Smith helped raise money for Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Beshear. He's hosted Hillary Rodham Clinton at his house. He said he called Judd about 10 days ago, prepared to give his advice to the actress, but hasn't heard back.

"If she was to call me tonight, I would give her some advice and I doubt that she'd be excited to come back for round two of that conversation. I don't care how many movies she's made." Smith said.

To Bluegrass State Democrats who worry about winning back the state Senate and keeping the state House, national Democrats are more concerned with forcing Republicans to spend money in Kentucky and distract McConnell from his day job as Republican Senate leader. They see Judd as a political infatuation. The actress, they say, would have trouble winning a state Mitt Romney carried by nearly 23 points in 2012.

Asked if his reaction amounted to sour grapes because Judd hadn't called him personally, Smith told a story about a recent high school basketball event that drew some 20,000 people. He said he talked to dozens who were skeptical about Judd.

"Maybe she can become a senator without talking to anybody from Kentucky," Smith said.

Top Democrats who are cool to Judd's candidacy say they'd like to see Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes get into the race. The daughter of a former state party chair, Grimes defeated her GOP challenger by a wide margin. State Democratic officials stop short of calling for a primary if Judd enters the race, but they give voice to a wider concern that McConnell will get whom he wants in Judd -- an opponent who can be tied to the president.

"Electing Ashley Judd gets a Republican Legislature elected. That's what I see at stake here. Your perspective is different if you're in New York or Los Angeles. They don't live here. We do. Judd's candidacy makes it seamlessly easy to Obama-ize this election," one Kentucky Democratic strategist said.