KENTUCKY SENATE RACE

02.15.13

Ashley Judd Really Can Win a Senate Run Against Mitch McConnell

The McConnell campaign has already launched attacks against the actress as too liberal, an Obama disciple, and anti-coal. But Judd could prevail using her great asset—a spiritual connection with Kentucky basketball, says former state treasurer Jonathan Miller.

All politics isn’t local. It’s far more intimate. Politics is rip-off-the-bandage emotion.  It’s high school melodrama on HGH.

Especially here in the South, all politics is personal.

Simple human nature may best explain why the prospect of actress Ashley Judd disrupting the otherwise inevitable reelection of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has provoked the ire of so much of Kentucky’s political chattering class. Consultants whom Judd hasn’t consulted call her potential bid a “catastrophe” and a “fantasy.” Political wags who haven’t been granted an audience term her record exploitable as “too liberal for Kentucky.” Big donors whom she hasn’t called complain about not being wooed.

Of course, a Judd campaign would ultimately require the ego-stroking and back-scratching that bind the fabric of our personal brand of politics.

But it’s a different character of human connection that provides the actress with a legitimate chance to topple the state’s most disciplined and effective political strategist of our era. And it’s why the famously sober and calculating McConnell machine is acting so concerned.

McConnell’s remarkable career trajectory since his first 1984 Senate campaign—and his subsequent transformation of the blue Bluegrass State into a predictably red federal stronghold—are tied to his perceptive insight about political psychology. Aware that he couldn’t channel an inner Gipper to inspire and excite, McConnell instead tapped into Kentucky’s dark side: our visceral resentment against the self-righteous interposition of outsiders and elitists, be they meddling federal regulators or snooty Duke basketball players. It’s a cultural milieu so deep and toxic that it effectively bound Kentucky to the Confederate cause after the Civil War ended and today provides sustenance to a Tea Party that decries “big government” programs that disproportionately benefit our poor state.

The senator’s allies have telegraphed this kind of campaign against Judd through an Internet ad depicting the actress as “an Obama-following, radical Hollywood liberal” who claims Tennessee as her home.

The ad is clever, funny, and effective. But its über-early broadcast—along with the release of a handful of statistically challenged polls by the senator’s allies—portend a case of high anxiety among Team McConnell. As my poker coach and New School political-science professor Jeff Smith has noted, acting strong at the table is the surest sign of a weak hand.

That’s because it’s not 1984 anymore. And in today’s Orwellian dystopia that is official Washington, Mitch McConnell is exhibit A of our deeply unpopular, polarized, and paralyzed system of government.

With congressional approval at all-time lows, slightly lower than Brussels sprouts, and only a tad higher than root canals—and especially in a state that was anti-Washington well before it was cool—who is better positioned to seize this deeply ingrained passion than the ultimate amateur running against the ultimate insider?  And what better way to avoid the lefty stigma in a far-right state than to build a campaign on changing the way all sides do business in the nation’s capital?

By redefining the term “No. 1 fan” in her omnipresent advocacy for her alma mater, Ashley Judd is identified by Kentuckians, above all, as one of us.

You know it won’t come easy. The GOP machine will spend tens of millions of dollars carpet-bombing Judd’s perceived vulnerabilities, which include her vocal support of the president, who is unpopular in Kentucky, and her strong words of protest against mountaintop-removal coal mining, which she once termed “the rape of Appalachia.”

A broad majority of Kentuckians oppose that destructive practice, but over the past decade, the coal industry has run a brilliantly successful (and, natch, affectingly patriotic) public-relations campaign, tying the fate of the black mineral to the state’s economic and cultural future. A politician pigeonholed as even slightly “anti-coal” can be viewed by those in the ploughed grounds as an agent of the elitist outsiders who are plotting to destroy our way of life.

I personally learned the difficulty of articulating a sensible alternative. As a candidate for governor in 2007, I called for a new, more restricted approach to mountaintop removal, bringing together all sides to plot out a coherent, holistic strategy for Appalachia’s energy and infrastructure future. Only two reporters showed up for my press conference, and one stormed out, angrily declaring my announcement “not newsworthy,” because I refused to call for an immediate moratorium.

But I’m no Ashley Judd. The media won’t—and can’t—ignore her. While most politicians must rely exclusively on 30-second paid commercials and meagerly parceled out, 15-second, free media soundbites—making any detailed, nuanced discussion of complex issues impossible—Judd’s celebrity would guarantee her more than sufficient opportunity to explain her past statements and share her comprehensive vision with voters. To progressives, this is what makes her unique candidacy so exciting; McConnell’s traditional strategy to completely define and destroy his opponent would be vitiated.

Judd’s great asset, however, is considerably more symbiotic—a sort of spiritual connection to the only state-sanctioned religion in the commonwealth: Kentucky basketball. We are a diverse and often divided state, but by the time March Madness rolls around, we are a cohesive, interdependent community: fans who might disagree sharply on matters of politics, religion, or lifestyle join voices in passionate advocacy of the beloved Wildcats.

By redefining the term “No. 1 fan” in her omnipresent advocacy for her alma mater, Ashley Judd is identified by Kentuckians, above all, as one of us. And once a year, she has stood at Rupp Arena’s center court to perform a hallowed ritual of the Big Blue Nation: after team cheerleaders contort their bodies on the hardwood to spell the first seven letters of the commonwealth’s name, Judd lifts her arms high into the air, and becomes, for one shining moment, the living quintessence of the letter “Y.” The “Y” tradition borders on a holy sacrament in Kentucky; today’s equivalent of a high priest standing at the Great Temple’s altar, reaching toward the heavens, urging the blue-attired congregation to its feet and lifting the faithful into frenzied revival.

In our highly personal brand of politics, that type of emotional connection with average voters is incalculable. And that’s how a political novice could very well wind up as the most personal of senators.