So she will? Or won’t she?
Last week, I outlined why an Ashley Judd for Senate campaign makes sense. In summary, she has great name recognition; her celebrity assigns her the aura of leadership; it is a great time for female candidates seeking higher office; and her friends in Hollywood will help her raise a boatload of money
So why hasn’t she announced yet? And why did Guy Cecil, director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recently tell reporters that there are “a handful of quality candidates” for the Democratic nomination in Kentucky? Rumor has it that he was talking about KY Secretary of State Alison Grimes, who has not ruled out a run.
But why this sudden trepidation? Just a month or two ago, it looked like Judd was certain to run. As it turns out, there are plenty of reasons for Judd and the DSCC to reconsider her candidacy. Put them all together, and they add up to the best reason of all: she’ll probably lose. But let’s be more specific:
Celebrities only win when the circumstances are just right. Although the precedents of Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and Ventura – action stars who made the leap to national politics – may seem to bode well, each of them had circumstances that set them apart from Judd. Reagan, for example, had a long history in politics. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild as early as the 1940s and a two-term Governor of California in the years leading up to his run for the presidency.
Schwarzenegger and Ventura had unique electoral circumstances. The former ran in a gubernatorial recall election with dozens of candidates (including less impressive celebrities such as Gary Coleman and porn star Mary Carey) and a short campaigning window, both of which combined to make his celebrity a key asset. Ventura ran on a third-party ticket in which he needed only 37 percent of the vote to win the governorship of Minnesota in 1998. In that year – the heart of the Clinton impeachment trial – voters were particularly disgusted with partisan politics, making the independent Ventura a natural fit.
Maybe celebrity ain’t what it used to be. Those three celeb-politicos mentioned above were all either elected in or were products of the 1980s, a decade with a strong cultural and political focus on individualism. Reagan ushered the era in with his laissez-faire economic policies and cutting of the social safety net; Schwarzenegger and Ventura were action stars from that era, embodying Reagan’s call for larger defense budget’s in human (or android) form. Even Sonny Bono launched his political career in 1988. But these days, politicians are celebrities, and it’s possible that the Hollywood aura has less pull than it used to. With several networks devoting round-the-clock coverage to our political process, McConnell’s face is almost as famous as Judd’s, albeit not quite as telegenic. Judd’s celebrity may still give her a leg up, but it won’t do as much for her as it would have thirty years ago.
Judd is pretty liberal for Kentucky. This is, after all, a state that gave only 38 percent of its vote to Obama in 2012. Kentucky voters have never elected a Democratic woman to national office. They did elect a Democratic female governor, Martha Layne Collins, in 1983, but she was pretty far to the right on women’s issues. The National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Campaign Fund, and the Women’s Political Caucus all refused to endorse her, citing her lack of support for the Equal Rights Amendment and her strong pro-life positions.
Judd on the other hand is unabashedly liberal, with positions that would make her a far better candidate for a blue state than the solid red Kentucky. She opposes mountain-top-removal coal mining, has spoken out rather harshly against overpopulation (calling it “unconscionable to breed”), and routinely uses the strongest, most divisive language about female reproductive health (“throughout history, men have tried to control the means of reproduction, which means trying to control woman”). Those positions will be great for fundraising among the Democratic base – but not for winning a general election in a red state.
She may not be ready for prime-time. A few weeks ago, just as the Judd for Senate rumors were peaking, Judd gave her first “campaign-style” speech at George Washington University. It did not go well. The topic was women’s reproductive health, a safe subject that won many elections for Democrats last year, but in a section on poverty, Judd bizarrely told the crowd that she and her family “winters in Scotland because we’re smart like that.” The McConnell team pounced on the gaffe, tweeting sarcastically that she was “a true woman of the people.” For such a wealthy candidate, this kind of gaffe will do serious damage, as it will reinforce the charges of elitism that will certainly be leveled at her by her opponents.
If Judd decides to run, her past statements on Scotland, overpopulation, and coal will no doubt be a collective albatross around her neck. McConnell has already run one vicious and effective campaign ad against the would-be candidate. Imagine what he can do with this material.
But if she does run, the DSCC will have no choice but to back her; they can’t turn down the money that Judd and her Hollywood friends will bring in. If I were them, I would lock Judd in a room for the next two months (Judd has said she will decide on a run in May, around the time of the Kentucky Derby) and get her ready for the big stage. They have a golden opportunity to defeat the Republican Senate leader – because he also happens to be the least popular sitting senator in the country. This is too big a campaign to throw away on a candidate who is not ready for the job.
So now what do you think?