Ashley Judd says no, but Sen. Mitch McConnell can’t rest easy

Ashley Judd brought star power to a potential US Senate run, but she had negatives. Now GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has to worry about another young woman the Democrats are wooing to run against him.

Roger Alford/AP
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, right, talks with student Nini Edwards after an event at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., March 20, 2013. Edwards, news editor of UK’s student newspaper The Kentucky Kernel, asked Grimes about a potential run for U.S. Senate. Grimes said she is concentrating on state legislative concerns right now.

Republicans are chortling over the long line of Democrats who have said they won’t run against Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in 2014, the top Republican in the Senate.

The Democrats are “zero for 10” in recruitment for the race, the National Republican Senatorial Committee declared Thursday, following actress Ashley Judd’s announcement that she’s out.

But Senator McConnell, who is trying for an unprecedented (for Kentucky) sixth term, can’t sit easy. Polls show he’s unpopular, both on the left and the tea-party right, and Democrats have another potential candidate in the wings: Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Former President Bill Clinton met with Secretary Grimes earlier this month and encouraged her to run for the Senate, not the House or for governor, as she is reportedly considering, according to ABC News. Grimes is young, photogenic, and politically connected. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a former state party chairman and longtime supporter of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The 2014 fight for the Senate – currently controlled by the Democrats, 55 to 45 – got hotter this week with the announcement that Sen. Tim Johnson (D) of South Dakota is retiring. That seat is now a prime pickup opportunity for the Republicans. But if the GOP is going to have a shot at taking back the Senate, it needs to hold onto seats like McConnell’s.

McConnell should worry about Grimes, because of the stark generational contrast and her gender, says Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“He could be faced with a candidate who’s going to be more difficult to run against, more difficult to define,” Ms. Duffy told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Ms. Judd brought to the table star power, deep Kentucky roots, and Democratic kudos for her political activism, but she has never run for office – and she lives in Tennessee. Both McConnell and Republican strategist Karl Rove had already made Web ads ridiculing Judd.

Now she’s out – and some Democrats say that’s a blessing. Judd has been outspoken in opposition to a coal mining technique called mountaintop removal, which put her on the wrong side of many Kentucky voters. She was also a strong supporter last fall of President Obama, who lost Kentucky by nearly 23 percentage points.

McConnell, meantime, knows he’s running from behind, and has been preparing to wage a “scorched-earth strategy” to keep his seat, according to Politico. He is in many ways like Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, who ran a shrewd reelection campaign in 2010 – and won – despite low popularity. Senator Reid was helped by weak opposition: The Republicans nominated tea partyer Sharron Angle, who made off-key comments about immigrants in a state with a fast-growing Latino population.

In Kentucky, McConnell has worked hard to woo the state’s tea party movement, through outreach, fundraising, and political help, Politico reports. So far, he faces no serious primary opposition.

Back in Washington, McConnell is a dealmaker on fiscal matters, which doesn’t always play well with the home-town conservatives. So far, he has not stated a position on immigration reform, in particular the issue of a citizenship path for illegal immigrants. But he is wooing moderates by talking up his recent role in bipartisan compromises on the budget and taxes.

Without an opponent, polling on McConnell’s reelection prospects reveals only so much. Still, he has clear cause for concern. A Courier-Journal poll taken in late January found that only 34 percent of the state’s Republicans will vote for him regardless of his competitor.

Among all voters, 34 percent said they will vote against him, versus 17 percent who say they will vote for him. Forty-four percent are waiting to see who runs against him.

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