By Catalina Camia
WASHINGTON - Ashley Judd vs. Mitch McConnell would have been one of the premiere Senate races in 2014, but Democrats say the battle to take down the Republican leader in Kentucky will still be a thriller.
In the first of what promises to be many ads attacking the Senate minority leader, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) on Thursday charged McConnell "is playing for the Washington special interests against Kentucky."
The 60-second radio ad was timed to hit the airwaves during the NCAA basketball tournament's Sweet 16 round but coincidentally came the day after Judd made her surprise announcement on Twitter that she won't seek the Democratic nomination for a chance to challenge McConnell.
"Kentuckians know that Mitch McConnell is playing for 'Team Washington' and not for Kentucky, and the DSCC is committed to holding Sen. McConnell accountable," said Guy Cecil, the committee's executive director. "Mitch McConnell is the walking, talking embodiment of everything that's wrong with Washington, D.C."
Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager, said his team is ready to run a "presidential-level" campaign and will "do whatever it takes" to win a sixth term for the Senate's top Republican.
"Democrats keep passing and passing on this race, and now they're going way down the bench," Benton said. "That speaks to Mitch McConnell's strength and now even a well-funded Hollywood actress is passing because it's tough to beat Mitch McConnell."
Democrats aren't discussing recruitment but point to McConnell's poll numbers as a sign of his vulnerability. A Courier-Journal/Bluegrass poll taken in January showed 17% of registered voters planned to vote for McConnell, who had only 34% support from Republicans. Benton said that survey is flawed and noted the senator's own internal polling shows him on solid ground.
Now that Judd is out of the picture, the Democratic focus is on Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. The 34-year-old lawyer won more votes than any other Democrat on the state ballot in 2011 when she won her first political race. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, is a former state Democratic Party chairman and friend of Bill Clinton.
Lundergan Grimes' spokeswoman issued a statement Wednesday saying the Democrat is concentrating on her legislative agenda and had no comment on the Senate race.
Jimmy Cauley, a Democratic strategist and ex-chief of staff to Gov. Steve Beshear, said Lundergan Grimes would be a better candidate against McConnell because she presents a clear contrast to the 71-year-old GOP leader. Cauley had cautioned against Judd's candidacy because she is opposed to a coal-mining technique called mountaintop removal, putting her at odds with much of eastern Kentucky.
"The sheer contrast between a bright, young lawyer vs. someone older who has gone Washington ... if the race is about that, then McConnell is in deep trouble," Cauley said in an interview Thursday. "If it's about Judd and some comment she made in her past, we lose our contrast."
Jonathan Miller, a former state treasurer and Democratic Party chairman, said he discussed with Judd the likelihood that a race against McConnell would be no-holds-barred - something the actress indicated she was not intimidated by. More than $32 million was spent by McConnell and Democrat Bruce Lunsford in their 2008 race, and that was two years before the Supreme Court ruled outside groups could spend unlimited amounts of money on ads to influence races.
That kind of a campaign could give Lundergan Grimes some pause, Miller said.
"Running against Mitch McConnell for anybody is going to be the most grueling, difficult year-and-a-half of your life. He is the most effective political campaigner in Kentucky in my lifetime," Miller said. "McConnell is a take-no-prisoners opponent."
In a statement on her website thanking Kentuckians, Judd said she was "unafraid of the Washington insider political machine" and not intimidated by the prospect of a tough battle. She vowed to support the Democratic Party's candidate and hinted that "perhaps someday" she would be "entrusted as a public servant to our beloved Kentucky."
Miller said it is possible that Judd, who lives outside Nashville, could create a political opportunity for herself if she gets involved in campaigns and public policy in the Bluegrass State, where she grew up and frequently returns to cheer on the University of Kentucky basketball team.
"All of those concerns raised about her being an out-of-stater will disappear in time, and she would be a stronger candidate," Miller said.