Ashley Judd’s decision to stay out of next year’s Kentucky Senate race absolutely won’t deprive Democrats of the sort of young woman who’s well-funded and telegenic enough to topple Mitch McConnell. In fact, the chances have gone up on just such a scenario.
That’s because the candidate who’s always been preferred over Judd by the Democratic establishment, both in the state and inside the Beltway, is now positioned to step in and take a clear shot at becoming only the third challenger in more than 60 years to deny re-election to an incumbent Senate party floor leader.
She is 34-year-old Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state for the past year and the scion of one of the best-connected Democratic families in the state. Because she’s already won statewide but is in a job that does not require her to stake out firm positions on any of the polarizing issues of the day, Grimes has the potential to be a difficult combination for McConnell to counter.
Grimes already is a proven vote-getter — she won by 20 points in 2011 after defeating an incumbent in the primary. But she wouldn’t have the sort of voting record or other paper trail that the minority leader could plumb for inconsistencies or positions outside the Kentucky mainstream.
Instead, Grimes would be able to define herself, without much fear of contradiction, as both a centrist and someone interested in state issues and the local economy first. And she would see plenty of attack ad opportunities by looking through McConnell’s six-year record as a leader of the ever-more-conservative and nationally polarizing Senate GOP.
And she has the promise of significant organizational and fundraising help from the network of the Clintons, who remain close to her father, Jerry Lundergan. He is a major player in union politics and, as state party chairman, helped Bill Clinton carry Kentucky in 1992 and 1996, the last Democratic nominee to do so.
All of which means that if Grimes runs for Senate, as is widely expected, instead of waiting for the 2015 gubernatorial race, Kentucky will probably end up hosting a Senate race almost as expensive and heavily covered as it would have been had the challenger been Judd. Her liberal activism and Hollywood glamour would have guaranteed a fascinating campaign, even though it made most Democratic strategists extremely wary from the outset.
At the same time, there are several reasons why the better bet at this moment is on McConnell to win a sixth term. More on that next time.