Early reports out of Kentucky indicated that Bluegrass-State Democrats did not want actress Ashley Judd to run for the U.S. Senate from her home state against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The fear supposedly is that since Kentuckians generally are conservative and Judd is liberal, her presence on the ticket would spell doom not only for the Democrats' attempt to wrest away McConnell's seat but for downballot Democrats as well.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
There's no regular Kentucky Democrat who has any hope of beating McConnell in the 2014 general election. Consequently, Kentucky Democrats have almost no chance of raising significant out-of-state money or media coverage for this race. It's going to take an out-of-the-box candidate to energize Democratic donors to pour money into Kentucky, and to get the media to take an interest.
A candidate such as Judd is perfect.
In my book Winning Political Campaigns: A Comprehensive Guide to Electoral Success, I compare six different candidate types to six different types of baseball managers. One is 'the Immortal'--in baseball a superstar who becomes a manager as an accolade for playing accomplishments that have nothing to do with management ability. I go on to explain that in the political arena, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan were Immortals--honored with elective office because of their successes in completely different venues.
The public loves these types of candidates--athletes, actors, musicians, etc.--and the GOP knows this well. It's the GOP that tends to nominate people who made their achievements in other fields--for example, football player J.C. Watts and baseball player Jim Bunning, whom the Republicans turned into a U.S. Senator from Kentucky.
Judd is likable, well-known, intelligent, and was reared in Kentucky and attended the state university, so Kentucky voters aren't going to reject her out of hand and are going to give her a fair hearing. She will be able to raise money from Hollywood donors and from women's and progressive groups all over the country that would simply concede the race to McConnell were any candidate other than Judd his opponent.
Suddenly, a race that the GOP had a lock on becomes competitive with the money and media attention that Judd will bring. And that money and media attention will help downballot Democrats, not hurt them.
But is Judd too liberal for Kentuckians?
Here's an example why this might not be a problem. Illinois is thought of as a Blue state, but not too long ago it was not only competitive, but leaned GOP. Illinois went for Republican President Ronald Reagan in a landslide in 1984.
Yet, that same year, the Illinois electorate voted out longtime Republican U.S. Senator Charles Percy in favor of one of late 20th-Century America's biggest liberals, Paul Simon. Hundreds of thousands of voters voted for Reagan, and went down to the very next ballot line and voted for Simon. Why? Because they liked Simon and felt he was real.
In Winning Political Campaigns, I quote one political insider as saying that people who were very conservative would consistently come up to Simon and say "I don't agree with you on a single stand you have, yet I'll vote for your because I see you're sincere.'"
Senate Majority Leader McConnell has many political gifts, but when you think of them, likability and sincerity are not the first ones that come to mind. It will be up to Kentuckians to decide if they want a tough political insider or a sincere outsider. In 1984 in neighboring Illinois, even conservatives decided they wanted the likable outsider, so a Judd victory in Kentucky in 2014 certainly is possible.
And what if Judd loses? Will she just be considered a Hollywood dilettante who got in the race on a lark?
No. Judd will impress people, and if she loses, she won't be done. She may be playing a longer game than anyone realizes. McConnell will be tough to beat under any circumstances; freshman Senator and Tea Party lightning-rod Rand Paul, who is up again in 2016, may be Judd's real target.
Judd may be using the same strategy a young Bill Clinton did in Arkansas--get well-known among state political leaders in an early losing campaign, as Clinton did in his 1974 run for Congress, and use those contacts to grab a bigger prize down the road. Clinton's '74 Congressional loss was crucial to his getting the backing, funding, and footsoldiers for his later successful Arkansas Gubernatorial runs.