Does Ashley Judd scare Mitch McConnell?

Sen. Mitch McConnell's first campaign ad criticizes his reelection opponents, including Ashley Judd. Recent statewide polls show waning support for the minority leader.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
Actress Ashley Judd reads off the Tennessee vote totals at the Democratic National Convention in September. Judd's statements that 'Tennessee is home,' shown in a campaign ad for Sen. Mitch McConnell, may be problematic if she decides to challenge McConnell for the Kentucky Senate seat in 2014.

Is Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell just a bit worried about the prospect of running for reelection to 2014 against actress/activist Ashley Judd?

We ask that question because the senior senator from Kentucky put up his first campaign ad today and it goes after Ms. Judd and three other possible Democratic challengers pretty hard. She’s not the only person mentioned, but she gets more than her share of the three-minute spot, and it ends with her speaking. Not that it’s putting her words in a positive light, of course.

The ad is called “Obama’s Kentucky Candidate,” and it’s pretty clever. The premise is that the president is holding some sort of town hall meeting to pick Senator McConnell’s opponent, and he goes from one person to the next, trying to find the chosen one. The video editing is clever and the whole thing looks quite real.

First up is Ed Marksberry, a former congressional candidate depicted by the ad as a yokel. Then there’s former US Ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun, shown marching in full top-hatted regalia in some sort of European parade. “He’s looking very sharp,” says Obama in a voice-over cut from a real town hall.

Then Obama calls on “the young lady with the pink, white blouse right there.... Wait until the microphone comes up. Introduce yourself.”

Next thing you know, there’s Judd standing at the podium at last year’s Democratic convention, saying, “From the Volunteer State, I proudly stand to nominate ...”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” goes Obama in the reaction shot, cut to make it appear as if he disapproves. In case you missed the subtlety there, Tennessee is the Volunteer State. That’s where Judd has been living with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Dario Franchitti. She was a Democratic National Convention delegate from Tennessee, not from Kentucky. The ad goes on to make that abundantly clear, alternating shots of her saying “Tennessee is home” with appearances from another possible candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, as well as a host of popular state Democrats saying they won’t run.

Why is McConnell running this ad so early? Why did Karl Rove’s American Crossroads pay for an online spot hitting Judd alone?

After all, she is indeed a Hollywood liberal, according to her own grandmother. The Tennessee thing is going to be a big problem if she runs – which by the way she hasn’t said she’s doing. She’s just honored by the attention, and considering it, and so forth.

Kentucky went big for Mitt Romney last fall. It should be a safe GOP seat.

But McConnell does not poll well in his own state at the moment, perhaps because of his role on the national stage. A recent Courier-Journal Bluegrass poll found that only 17 percent of the state’s voters said they would be sure to support him. Thirty-four percent said they planned to oppose him. Forty-four percent said they were waiting to see who his opponent will be before deciding.

It’s possible that leaves an opening for Judd.

“It’s safe to say that if she ran, she could put in big money, raise a lot more and perhaps put McConnell under unprecedented scrutiny at a time when he’s not all that popular,” writes Al Cross, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a former Courier-Journal political writer, in a recent opinion piece.

A just-released poll puts McConnell ahead of Judd by 49 to 40 percent in a head-to-head matchup. The survey was taken by Harper Polling in conjunction with RunSwitch Public Relations, a firm founded by a former McConnell aide.

“My takeaways from the survey are that Senator McConnell is in solid shape among Republicans and general election voters, and that Ashley Judd, for someone who has never run for office, already has a tough hold out of which to climb regarding her own image,” said RunSwitch founding partner Scott Jennings in a statement upon the poll release.

That’s one way to look at it. And it’s true the poll found that voters reacted negatively when told Judd has been living in Tennessee, for instance. But if you were minority leader of the US Senate, someone striking key fiscal deals with the White House, wouldn’t you think you could lead the costar of “Tooth Fairy” by more than that?

“Tennessee is my home!” are the last words on the new McConnell ad. If she does run, that’s a phrase that’s going to be drilled into every potential voter in the Bluegrass State approximately a zillion times prior to Election Day.

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