“Argo” and “Lincoln” won big at the Oscars. Here’s a pitch for the next Washington political story that is sure to be a Hollywood hit.
The plot goes like this: A young, liberal Democratic actress returns home to run for the U.S. Senate. Her opponent is a sharp-elbowed conservative Republican who has been in Congress for over a quarter century. There is dramatic tension right from the start as it quickly becomes clear the idealistic newcomer actually has a chance to beat Goliath.
This is no fiction. Actress Ashley Judd, 44, looks certain to challenge 71-year-old Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in his reelection bid next year.
The Hill reported that Judd met with leaders of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in Washington last month to discuss a possible run against McConnell. The DSCC labels McConnell as the “embodiment of everything that’s wrong with Washington’s partisan political gridlock, and that’s why he’s the least popular senator in the country.” In fact, a December poll of Kentucky voters by Democratic-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling found 55 percent disapproval of McConnell.
Kentucky is a reliably Republican state but shows signs of becoming more welcoming to Democrats. It has a Democrat serving as governor and a majority of Democrats in the state House. The governor, Steve Beshear, has already met with Judd. And Kentucky’s Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth calls Judd a “very serious potential candidate.”
The actress is acting like a candidate. She spent last weekend in D.C. raising her political profile by speaking on women’s health policies and as the featured guest at a gala to raise money for the Global India Fund.
According to a February poll of voters in the Bluegrass State by RunSwitch and Harper Polling, Judd trails McConnell by 9 points, 40-49. McConnell won his last race in 2008 by just 6 points. That same year, his state went for Republican presidential candidate John McCain by 16 points.
Any professional pollster will tell you an incumbent is vulnerable when they are below 50 percent in the polls and don’t have a double-digit lead over the challenger. That’s McConnell’s situation.
The Senate minority leader also has enemies on his right.
Some Tea Party activists consider McConnell too moderate because he negotiated on deals that led to tax increases and the unpopular sequestration cuts. A tough GOP primary could split Kentucky Republicans and cause him to spend lots of money, weakening him before an election fight against Judd.
That’s why GOP powerbrokers take a Judd candidacy very seriously.
Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC has already spent $10,000 in a pre-emptive online advertising campaign to attack Judd as another elite Hollywood liberal. Rove has vowed that his group will spend money to “make fun” of her.
At the opening of one of his state campaign offices last month, McConnell declared that his 2014 race “would be the only one with any national significance.” He may be right.
If the top Republican in the Senate goes down next year, it would be a humiliating defeat for the national party — just as it was on the other side of the aisle when Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost his reelection bid in 2004.
Among Democrats, the big question is whether Judd has the political toughness to deal with McConnell.
He is the main architect of the GOP’s congressional strategy of obstructing virtually every Obama administration nominee and every part of Obama’s legislative agenda. As Senate minority leader, he has broken with centuries of precedent to institute a permanent filibuster in the Senate where every piece of legislation now requires 60 votes instead of a simple majority.
The GOP is sure to paint Judd as just a political naïf, just an “actress.”
No doubt her most obvious political asset is her fame. She has starred in several successful movies. She is the daughter of country music star Naomi Judd. She also holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky. She has not held elected office.
Any attempt to belittle her political credentials could backfire on McConnell. Female voters may find it condescending. And Judd is uniquely positioned to paint McConnell as out of touch with female voters. He recently led a group of 22 male Republicans senators in voting against the Violence Against Women Act . She supports the law. She has a record as a strong defender of Planned Parenthood and an advocate for women’s rights.
McConnell does have the cash advantage. He is also owed plenty of favors by establishment Republicans. Judd will need to announce her candidacy early to compete with a political giant.
Get out the popcorn!
This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.