If political junkies are lucky, the marquee Senate race in 2014 will be an odd-couple fight pitting Republican leader Mitch McConnell against actress Ashley Judd. On its face, there’s little to suggest that McConnell, a canny tactician who is perhaps the nation’s most powerful elected Republican, would have much to fear from a liberal Democratic activist in a staunchly conservative state. But McConnell’s allies want you to know he is not taking Judd lightly.
A December survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling put McConnell just 4 points up in a hypothetical contest with Judd, who has not decided whether to run. That matched McConnell’s own internal numbers. But these polls may not hold up once McConnell’s allies reshape Kentuckians’ perceptions of the actress and Democratic activist. A new American Crossroads ad released Wednesday offers a glimpse of the attacks conservatives would hurl at Judd if she runs:
It is tough to win in a conservative state if voters think you’re a carpetbagging, Obama-worshipping radical. Which raises the question of why McConnell’s team is so concerned about a Judd candidacy.
One possible answer is that they’re not, and the ad is something of a red herring that deflects attention from McConnell’s larger concern, which is a primary challenge from the right. Despite his clout in D.C., McConnell is not a beloved figure back home. (A December poll ranked him as the nation’s least popular Senator.) In September, McConnell poached Jesse Benton, who ran Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, to manage his own — a move designed to shore up his weaknesses with the Tea Partyers and Paul acolytes that propelled Paul’s son Rand to his own Senate victory.
McConnell has gotten an early jump on the campaign. “This is the only race in the country,” he told supporters at the opening of his campaign headquarters last weekend, “with any national significance.” But the perilous threat is posed not by Democrats but rather his own party. Highlighting Judd’s liberalism might hurt the Democrat in Kentucky, but it also carries an added benefit. It might persuade voters pondering a conservative alternative to McConnell to stick with a proven commodity to defeat her.