ELECTIONATE MARCH 11, 2013
The Huffington Post reported Saturday that Ashley Judd is planning to announce her candidacy for Senate at the end of April, setting up what would be the most intriguing Senate race of the cycle. As a media-savvy actress with nationwide name recognition—and all the free publicity and fundraising power that entails—Judd might seem a formidable general-election foe for embattled Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Alas, the race is far likelier to be entertaining than competitive.
Let's say Judd's southern charm and legitimate ties to Kentucky allow her to dismiss the charge that she's a carpetbagger. And that her more bizarre assertions, like that breeding is "unconscionable," are too disconnected from politics and too unbelievable to make a difference. And that she successfully deflects the argument that she's "radical," a word she's used to describe herself. She's still a mainstream, national Democratic candidate in a state where mainstream, national Democrats lose.
Kentucky is not kind to Democrats seeking a seat in Congress—not even conservative Democrats who do well at the state level. The party hasn't won a federal, statewide race in the state since 1996, when Bill Clinton took 46 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Democrats have had their fair share of vulnerable opponents, too, including a senile Jim Bunning in 2004, a TARP-supporting McConnell during the 2008 Democratic wave, and libertarian Rand Paul in a working class, populist state.
McConnell's case is especially telling. With the economy in recession and George W. Bush's approval rating mired in the thirties, 2008 was already a good year for Democrats before the economy collapsed in September. Then, McConnell supported the Wall Street bailout and faced a populist backlash that threatened his reelection. But despite those nearly worst-case circumstances, he defeated Democrat Bruce Lunsford, a businessman, by a convincing 6 point margin. By most accounts, McConnell even turned his insider status into an asset by emphasizing the federal spending he secured for Kentucky.
The political and economic climate should be far more hospitable in 2014 than it was in 2008. Since McConnell's last election, Kentucky has moved even further to the right. The president is deeply unpopular in Kentucky and he lost by 23 points in November. The "War on Coal," the coal industry's term for the Obama administration's EPA regulations and its push for cap and trade, dealt a devastating blow to Democratic fortunes in coal country—a region that Democrats need to carry by a large margin to win statewide.
If McConnell won in 2008, why wouldn't he now? The answer, presumably, would be Ashley Judd's own political appeal. But she opposes mountaintop coal mining and has said, "I will go wherever the president wants me to go." That alone could cost her the race. With that ammunition, McConnell could easily turn the election into a referendum on Obama's agenda. Since the president launched the so-called "War on Coal," no Democratic candidate has succeeded in coal country to the extent necessary to carry the state without completely disavowing the national party's stance on environmental issues.
A Judd victory isn't impossible. Candidate quality makes a difference in statewide races, and Judd could "out-Kentucky and out-country" a detached Washington insider like Mitch McConnell, as one Kentucky political operative put it. And as imperfect as Judd is, it's important not to understate McConnell's weaknesses. According to PPP, his approval rating stands at just 37 percent, more than low enough to give hope to a flawed challenger.
But since many of the voters who disapprove of McConnell's performance are Republicans, he still received 47 percent to Judd's 43 percent. If that's an accurate measure of McConnell's support, Judd's path to victory is narrow—especially since undecided voters, who lean Republican in Kentucky, don't know much yet about Judd's politics. McConnell's internal polling shows that Judd's support collapses after voters learn about her positions, with McConnell opening up a 20-point lead. One should be deeply skeptical of leaked internals and polls conducted after message-tests, but it's plausible enough.
The McConnell campaign and GOP super PACs have already made their strategy known, attacking Judd as a radical Obama-loving, coal-hating carpetbagger—and done so before she's even announced her candidacy. If she enters the race, the attacks will only worsen. Given the record of liberal Democrats in Kentucky, there's little reason to be optimistic about her chances. Perhaps Kentuckians will find Judd so charismatic that they'll embrace her in spite of her liberalism. For Judd to pull that off, she will need, as Molly Redden put it, to "deliver the performance of a lifetime." And even that might not be enough.