Confirming a trend that appeared to be developing over the last two weeks, actress Ashley Judd announced through her Twitter account yesterday that she will not challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) next year.
It was fast becoming clear, including to those leaders of the national and Kentucky Democratic Party apparatus, that Judd would not match up favorably with McConnell, who has proven himself as one of the stronger veteran Republican campaigners in the current political era. Because his victory percentage dropped to 53.0 percent in the Obama presidential year of 2008 from a high of 64.7 percent in 2002, Democrats are feeling more optimistic about their 2014 Kentucky Senate chances.
The state is an interesting one from a political context. Though it now performs as solid Republican territory during presidential contests, Democrats are still more than competitive, if not routinely favored, in statewide and local elections.
While the GOP now dominates the state’s congressional elections, particularly when considering freshman Rep. Andy Barr’s (R-KY-6) upset of incumbent Ben Chandler (D) last November to increase the party’s delegation to a 5R-1D split, Democrats are arguably the major Blue Grass State political force. They continue to dominate the governor’s contest, winning nine of Kentucky’s last 10 statewide races, and hold every constitutional office with the exception of Agriculture Commissioner. Currently, they have a 55-45 majority in the state House of Representatives, but Republicans command the state Senate 23-14, with one Independent. It wasn’t until 1998 that the GOP took both of the state’s US Senate seats, though they did have such control during the 1960’s.
While true Ashley Judd would have been able to attract copious amounts of national money for her race against the Republican leader, she would have been an easy mark as his opponent. Based upon her previous political activity and many statements she has uttered about various issues, it is clear that she is out of step with the Kentucky ideological mainstream.
Additionally, McConnell would have been able to wrap the Hollywood culture around her neck, a lifestyle that is not viewed positively in this generally conservative state.
Furthermore, Judd continues to live in Tennessee. Born in California, the family moved to Kentucky when she was a child, but then bounced around the country. She spent a significant part of her childhood in the Ashland and Lexington areas of Kentucky, attending various elementary and secondary schools, and also graduated from the University of Kentucky; but her personal roots in the state are weak. Her mother, country singer Naomi Judd, comes from a multi-generation Kentucky family, but that probably wouldn’t have been enough to consider Ashley Judd any less of a political carpet bagger. So, in many ways, her decision not to run may actually be bad news for Sen. McConnell.
While Judd was perhaps the Democrats’ best known potential senatorial candidate, she is far from their only option. The person now expected to soon form a senatorial exploratory committee is Secretary of State Alison Grimes.
Grimes is a relative political newcomer, but already she has developed an impressive campaign resume. When Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R) resigned his position to leave the state after Rand Paul destroyed him in the 2010 Republican senatorial primary, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear appointed Bowling Green Mayor Elaine Walker (D) to fill the unexpired portion of the term. Upstart Grimes, an attorney and Democratic activist, challenged Walker in the 2011 Democratic primary and won a strong 55-45 percent victory. She then defeated Republican Bill Johnson 61-39 percent in the general election, scoring the top Democratic percentage in the state. Even this brief electoral history gives her more political credibility than any fledgling Ashley Judd campaign.
Though some believe McConnell may have dodged a bullet by avoiding Judd’s political effort, his tougher challenge actually may lie ahead.