Ashley Judd Smear Helps Mitch McConnell as Kentucky Dems Botch Reply

McConnell’s national rise has been aided by his utterly inept opposition, writes Jonathan Miller.

04.15.13 8:45 AM ET

When Mitch McConnell, perhaps America’s most powerful Republican senator, was caught on tape with senior aides lampooning then–potential opponent Ashley Judd's courageous public admission of her past struggle with depression, you’d expect Kentucky Democrats to respond briskly to this vicious smear, right?

Wrong. Instead most Democrats—the state's party chair and one state senator have been rare exceptions—have piled onto the GOP-driven, media-fueled bandwagon that’s instead been focused singularly on decrying the alleged behavior of two independently acting 20-somethings who may or may not have been involved in recording the meeting.

Sadly, the circular firing squad Democrats have again assembled comes as no surprise to observers of the state, who have watched for decades as McConnell’s national rise has been aided by his utterly inept opposition.

Students of modern campaign tactics remember Mitch McConnell’s first U.S. Senate race, in 1984, as an early and landmark triumph of negative attack-ad politics: the Roger Ailes–produced “Hound Dog” ad—which featured bloodhounds desperately seeking the “missing” incumbent Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston—played a critical role in McConnell’s longshot victory. But the jar might never been opened had the lid not been loosened first by the primary challenge of incumbent Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. Brown ultimately abandoned his bid, but according to Al Cross, the dean of the state’s political journalists, Brown’s very entry revealed for the first time that the popular Huddleston was “vulnerable to defeat,” providing real legitimacy to a GOP challenge.

When McConnell sought his first reelection six years later, the internal Democratic warfare was even more perverse and devastating. Party activists and insiders had coalesced around the candidacy of former Louisville mayor Harvey Sloane, a well-known statewide figure with access to substantial funding. However, as Cross remembers, the then-incumbent Gov. Wallace Wilkinson was steamed at Sloane for failing to support his gubernatorial ambitions—Wilkinson, after all, had served as Sloane’s state finance chair four years prior. So Wilkinson sabotaged his former ally first by recruiting a primary opponent who weakened Sloane and depleted his resources and then by refusing to provide support in the general election. The governor’s personal pettiness may have proved the difference maker in a race where McConnell secured just 52 percent of the vote.

McConnell’s last two races were marked by intraparty squabbling and negligent political handicapping. In 2002 national Democrats were aggressively recruiting Charlie Owen, an ethically pure, multimillionaire businessman to challenge McConnell. Then, in a complete surprise to those of us sitting on stage with him at the state’s largest political gathering, Gov. Paul Patton abruptly endorsed Lois Combs Weinberg, a well-respected but largely unknown former governor’s daughter. Owen never ran, and Weinberg, who just wasn’t ready for primetime campaigning, was pummeled.

Six years later progressives were touting Greg Fischer, a young, bright Louisville entrepreneur, but national Democrats—perhaps learning the wrong lessons from the previous race—championed another wealthy magnate, Bruce Lunsford, whose controversial business career provided fodder for the GOP attack-ad machine. McConnell emerged as one of the very few vulnerable Republicans to survive the 2008 Democratic tide, while Fischer has gone on to become the very popular mayor of the state’s largest city.

The current election season should be springtime for Democrats in Kentucky.

As another triumphant March college-basketball run transitions into the homestretch of the Kentucky Derby, the state's Democrats, like its blooming yellow poplars, are experiencing a verdant rejuvenation. The popular second-term incumbent governor, Steve Beshear, just completed his most successful General Assembly session, with some of his highest policy priorities enacted. While Beshear is term-limited, Democrats are favored to retain the governor’s mansion in 2015. Indeed, two top-tier contenders, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson and auditor Adam Edelen, recently endorsed marriage equality, despite only 27 percent statewide support for the concept, signaling that the most competitive struggle will be in the Democratic primary that May.

You’d expect folks to be lining up for the 2014 race to challenge McConnell, who polls as the most unpopular member of the U.S. Senate. But after Judd withdrew from the campaign—in part perhaps due to loud criticism of her candidacy by a handful of Democratic activists—McConnell remains unopposed. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the stated alternative of the anti-Judd crowd, still has made no official comment.

If Grimes doesn't run? There is no plan C.

And here's where Democratic reaction to the release of the brutal, no-holds-barred McConnell tapes might have its greatest, most ironic impact: A moment that should have enraged base activists, leading them to demand a strong candidate emerge to take down McConnell, instead provided a stark and severe warning to any potential challenger—jump in at your peril. We won't have your back.

Thus, we may be left with no serious candidate to challenge McConnell, despite his sagging popularity and political vulnerability. Which will leave plenty of time for Kentucky Democrats to do what we do best: point fingers and assign blame. Cue the circular firing squad: Ready ... Aim ...