Ashley Judd sounded as if she was trying out for a new role—and perhaps she was.
At George Washington University on Friday, the actress made one of her first public appearances in D.C. since word spread that she’s considering running for the U.S. Senate. And it was obviously a chance for her to test the political waters.
Judd mentioned Kentucky at least a dozen times in 90 minutes, and although she refused to talk candidly about a potential run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014—admitting there was an “elephant in the room”—she vociferously spoke about what drove her to become an activist and how religion helps her get through each day.
“It’s hard work. I don’t mean it’s just hard work because of the hours we put in—it’s emotionally hard work to be with people who are suffering,” Judd said, referring to her conversations with those who have been sexually abused. “What became essential for me is my faith and that I celebrated those people, too, because it’s so important to have hope.”
Judd spoke about her experiences working to promote public health and women’s reproductive health, and unabashedly drew ties between such issues as maternal mortality, child prostitution, and a lack of gender equality. She praised Congress for passing the Violence Against Women Act this week, but voiced concern over the military’s decision to allow women in combat situations.
“While I was happy to hear that women are allowed in combat, my initial fear is that more rapes will happen because of it, as a way of asserting control,” she said.
Judd also discussed, as she first disclosed two years ago, her own past ordeal: “I’m a three-time survivor of rape, and about that I have no shame, because it was never my shame to begin with—it was the perpetrator’s shame. And only when I was a grown, empowered adult and had healthy boundaries and had the opportunity to do helpful work on that trauma was I able to say, ‘OK, that perpetrator was shameless, and put their shame on me.’ Now I gave that shame back, and it’s my job to break my isolation and talk with other girls and other women.”
Judd’s stance on women’s rights may be par for the course in liberal Hollywood, but that’s a different culture than Kentucky, a red state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1992.
“I think she would have a better chance in a place like New York or California than Kentucky,” said Jay Townsend, a Republican political consultant. “This is part of the Bible Belt, and it’s parochial.”
The outspoken Judd has said things that could come back to haunt her. She’s been quoted comparing mountaintop mining to the Rwandan genocide, and Christianity as patriarchal domination over women. She has previously denounced the use of coal, tweeting: “The era of coal plant is over, unacceptable,” in October. Kentucky was America’s third largest coal supplier in 2011, with the industry employing more than 19,000 people in the state.
“Coal is still a very important national resource in the U.S., especially in Kentucky,” says Matt Wyatt, a Democratic analyst at Strategic Campaign Media Consultants in Elizabethtown, Ky. “It’s not that people don’t think that coal pollutes. It’s a cultural thing. It’s an ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’”
The deck may be stacked against Judd, but analysts on both sides of the aisle say it might be foolish to overlook her, given her prominent name and ties to the Bluegrass State. At the George Washington event, her mother, country singer Naomi Judd, sat in the front row.
“Everybody knows she’s a big University of Kentucky fan and everyone knows her and her family and they will let her slide on some things … and that’s why I think she has a chance,” says Wyatt. “Anyone else running statewide on those stances doesn’t have a chance.”
A native of the state, Judd is a University of Kentucky alumna and huge basketball fan—but she resides in Tennessee, which was featured in a recent attack ad financed by the conservative group American Crossroads.
Wyatt says Judd’s star power is her saving grace and could help her mount a serious challenge to McConnell.
“We elect Mitch McConnell not because we like him. He has no charm whatsoever, but he absolutely destroys his opposition, he takes them apart. He raises a lot of money and he makes [the challenger] the issue and he’s very clever at it,” he says.
Larry O’Bryan, president of Proactive Media in Louisville, agrees that McConnell is hardly popular.
“If you get the right person in Kentucky, you could raise an ungodly amount of money from people just because of McConnell,” he says.
In fact, a Louisville Courier-Journal poll in January found that just 17 percent of those surveyed said they planned to vote for McConnell’s reelection, while a third said they would vote against him. Some 44 percent said they will wait to see who’s running against him.
“It’s not impossible,” Townsend says of Judd’s chances.