As she prepares to mount a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), no potential senatorial candidate has garnered as much media attention as actress Ashley Judd. She has been the subject of as much speculation about her political acumen as she has for her potential to scuttle what is a winnable race for Democrats in the Bluegrass State. Today, a familiar dynamic is emerging with the progressive base of the Democratic Party clamoring for her candidacy and the party’s more cautious elements trying to apply the brakes to Judd’s political aspirations. It is a condition familiar, however, primarily to Republicans who wrestled with the ill-fated senate candidacy of Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO). Many political commentators and analysts have made that comparison, but few have explained why it is an apt one.
The most recent public polling shows McConnell is deeply unpopular in his home state, with just 37 percent of Kentucky’s registered voters approving of the job he has done in office according to a Public Policy Polling survey of 1,266 voters from December 7 – 9, 2012. Judd, meanwhile, enjoys a 42/36 favorability rating and is even favorable among a plurality of male voters.
Even before the campaign has begun in earnest, however, McConnell bests Judd in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup with 47 to 43 percent of the vote. Even though she wins 58 percent of the moderates in that survey – an unlikely final result at the end of a grueling campaign – she still loses based on her inability to draw the support of the conservative voters who make up a plurality of Kentucky’s electorate.
If the public polling is enough to give Judd supporters pause, polling that has not been made available to the public is causing near panic among Democrats. Unreleased polling conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is causing them to “reevaluate” Judd’s candidacy, according to a report in the Louisville Eccentric Observer:
As late as last week, the wheels were already very much in motion at the DSCC in planning a Judd Senate candidacy. While those plans have not been scrapped, there is definitely a re-evaluation happening. Our sources tell LEO that while the DSCC felt that Judd could compete with McConnell, one of Judd’s strongest assets would be her ability to raise money on par with McConnell and tie up Republican campaign spending (both McConnell’s and the NRSC’s) in that race.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee would not be happy having to redirect funds to defend McConnell in an environment where campaign cash would be better spent on offense against any of the many vulnerable Democrats or in support of a candidate vying for one of the open seats previously held by Democrats in the coming cycle.
The DSCC is clearly wary of the prospect that Judd could have the same impact on the national electoral landscape that Akin had on the political environment in 2012.
Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment resonated through the electorate and virtually every GOP candidate for office was forced by an animated political press to make clear their position on his ill-advised comment. Republicans will seek to compel the press to ask Democrats across the country, with at least a vaguely similar amount of zeal, for their thoughts on Judd’s many poorly conceived comments:
“It’s unconscionable to breed with the number of children who are starving to death in impoverished countries,” Judd mused in 2006.
“It’s so nice to live in America again,” she said of President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate,” Judd wrote for The Daily Beast in 2012 (in a post in which she approached the debate over gender inequality in media by using the first person “I” no less than 14 times over the course of four paragraphs). “It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.”
These comments do not sound, on their face, controversial to the average progressive Democrat. These are mutually agreed-upon maxims of a cohesive ideological antipathy towards perceived institutional gender inequality. And therein lies the problem for Democrats: this is the same condition that convinced socially conservative Republicans that Akin was an electable candidate, his terminal gaffe notwithstanding.
“[W]hat he said was medically correct,” declared conservative activist Chris Loesch.
In spite of declarations by then-NRSC Chairman Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) that the committee would cease to fund his candidacy and calls for Akin to abandon the race from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), former Reps. Adam Hasner (R-FL) and Heather Wilson (R-NM) and a slew of Republican columnists, commentators and consultants, Akin refused to abort his candidacy.
Surrounded by supporters blind to the empirical reality that his comments had made him and his candidacy irreversibly toxic, Akin soldiered on, convinced that his Republican detractors were merely anxious about the presidential race.
Today, in the mold of conservative pundits most resistant to reality, Judd’s progressive supporters are busily convincing their champion to ignore the warning signs:
“You get into a debate with this guy, you beat him in the debate, you win,” asserted MSNBC host Chris Matthews on Monday.
“Al Franken was Stuart Smalley before he was a U.S. Senator,” MSNBC host Alex Wagner added. “Ashley Judd is not only a very well-known Hollywood actress and, you know, beautiful and well spoken, she’s been a very outspoken advocate for women’s rights. She’s questioned male patriarchy. She’s questioned traditional gender norms, and has done so with an amount of fluency and passion that is pretty remarkable.”
Wagner insisted that McConnell’s race would become a proxy fight over “traditional gender norms,” as though this was an asset for a Democratic candidate running statewide in dark red Kentucky. This is a purely aspirational and emotional sentiment.
Wagner added that she thought the race would shape up as have other races in the 2012 cycle, in which Republican candidates were cast as extremists. She misses the fact that the “extreme” statements in this case are not originating from the Republican.
In spite of Huffington Post Editorial Director Howard Fineman’s reliance on traditional reporting, the facts about the conservative state of Kentucky, the trepidation of local Democratic officials about her candidacy, and the baggage that Judd is burdened with, even he allowed himself to be overcome by his fellow MSNBC’ers enthusiasm for Judd’s candidacy.
If Judd wants to surround herself with these purely supportive and uncritical voices, she can. Judd’s candidacy could, like Akin’s, become a chance for Republicans to create a caricature of Democratic candidates in races beyond Kentucky’s borders. If Judd runs and forces the state’s more viable Democratic prospects to concede the primary, it will only serve progressives’ self-image — not the Democratic Party.
Todd Akin could and did surround himself with conservatives that allowed him to ignore the obvious fact that he was going to lose. Liberal commentators are, today, setting the same trap for Judd. In doing so, they are throwing away one of the Democratic Party’s best Senate pick up opportunities of the 2014 cycle by pinning their hopes on a candidate who embodies what they wish the Democratic coalition was, not what it is.
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