McConnell secret tape: Liberal group blamed, but Ashley Judd still an issue

A Democratic official blames two men from Progress Kentucky for recording a McConnell campaign strategy session. But mockery of Ashley Judd's mental health past is still fodder for Democrats.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. answers questions from reporters, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, following a Republican strategy session. The FBI is investigating allegations that McConnell's re-election campaign office was bugged with an electronic listening device.

Two members of the liberal group Progress Kentucky have been identified as the secret recorders of a strategy session for the reelection campaign of Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the Senate.

The Feb. 2 audio recording, which was leaked to Mother Jones magazine and posted online Tuesday, revealed plans by the McConnell campaign to go after actress Ashley Judd over her mental health struggles and religious views, had she decided to run against Senator McConnell. Ms. Judd has since decided not to run.

The two men from Progress Kentucky – Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison – said they secretly recorded the meeting while standing in the hallway outside the room, according to Jacob Conway, a member of the executive committee of the Louisville/Jefferson County Democratic Party. Mr. Conway reported the two men’s claim in an interview with WFPL, an NPR affiliate in Louisville, Ky.

The secret recording sparked outrage by both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats were outraged that the McConnell campaign was prepared to attack Judd over her struggles with depression, including suicidal thoughts as a child, as detailed in her memoirs. Republicans were upset over what they called “Watergate-style tactics” afoot in the 2014 campaign.

Conway, the local Democratic official, told Fox News he spoke up because he did not want the Democratic Party to face blame for the recording.

“I did not want … their mistakes, their lack of judgment to hurt our party’s efforts here in the state of Kentucky and in Jefferson County, here in Louisville,” Conway said.

Progress Kentucky is a super political-action committee, an outside group that funds political activity.

"WFPL's reports that left-wing activists illegally recorded a private meeting inside our campaign headquarters are very disturbing," McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said in a statement. "At this point, we understand that the FBI is immersed in an intensive criminal investigation and must defer any further comment to them."

Kentucky law states that “eavesdropping” is a felony, but it’s unclear if recording a meeting overheard from a hallway qualifies as a crime. 

What is clear is that Democrats are eager to pick off McConnell in the 2014 midterms. The latest poll in Kentucky, by Public Policy Polling (PPP), shows the senator in a weak position, with only 36 percent job approval and 54 percent disapproval. Still, Kentucky is a solid red state, and McConnell will be hard to beat.

So far, no major Democrat has stepped forward to run. Kentucky’s secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes, is reportedly considering a run, and could be competitive. The PPP poll shows her trailing McConnell by only four points, 45-41, with just 50 percent name recognition. 

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