FRANKFORT — Kentucky politicos have been atwitter since Tuesday's general election with gossip that actress and former Kentucky resident Ashley Judd's name could be on the ballot when voters return to the polls in 2014.
So far, the high-profile Tennessee Democrat has done little to quell speculation that she might challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in two years.
Judd, in a written statement released by her publicist this week, didn't rule out a possible Senate run.
"I cherish Kentucky, heart and soul, and while I'm very honored by the consideration, we have just finished an election, so let's focus on coming together to keep moving America's families, and especially our kids, forward," Judd said.
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Judd, a political activist with a master's degree from Harvard, shouldn't be ruled out as a possible contender, political observers say. She has several key assets that are necessary to challenge McConnell, who is expected to raise $20 million for his re-election bid. She can go dollar for dollar against McConnell, and she is well known throughout the state.
But she will have to overcome key hurdles, such as convincing people who are used to seeing her on television and in movies that she can represent Kentuckians. Judd has been an outspoken critic of the coal industry in the past and a supporter of President Barack Obama, who lost in Kentucky on Tuesday to Republican Mitt Romney.
McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, chalked up much of the talk about Judd's possible run to U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, who told The Courier-Journal of Louisville earlier in the week that he thought Judd would be a credible candidate.
Benton said in a written statement, "Senator McConnell and his wife are big fans of Ashley Judd's movies and appreciate her energy, especially when it comes to bringing young people into the political process.
"Much of this speculation is being stirred up by John Yarmuth, who appears to have an unhealthy obsession with Senator McConnell that may impress the Obama crowd in D.C. but sure doesn't help Kentucky."
Danny Briscoe, a political consultant who typically works with Democrats, said anyone who challenges McConnell has to have a wide network of donors that go beyond Kentucky.
Judd has that network.
"She has her own personal wealth," Briscoe said. "Between her and her husband's network of friends, they could raise the funds."
Judd is married to racecar driver Dario Franchitti, a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Some reports have estimated that Franchitti's net worth is upwards of $72 million.
Judd has nearly universal name recognition in Kentucky, said Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where Judd earned a bachelor's degree. She is an avid fan of Kentucky Wildcats basketball and usually attends several games a year. Judd has lived in Ashland and Lexington.
Her mother and her half-sister, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, are well known and beloved country music stars who are both natives of Ashland and deep roots in Kentucky.
"It's a name that penetrates even to families that are not as politically aware," Voss said.
Judd's ability as an actress — she is Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated — could transfer well to a campaign. Delivering speeches and recording political advertisements would come easily to her. Many first-time political candidates struggle to master that type of communication, Voss said.
Briscoe said that Judd, 44, also has a compelling life story.
"She came from very humble beginnings and became a star," Briscoe said.
But Judd's abilities as an actress also could mean she would have to work hard to convince people that she knows the issues, Voss said.
"Being taken seriously as a candidate requires more than just saying, 'I am smarter than you think I am just because I am an actress," Voss said.
Judd has long been an outspoken critic of coal mining, including strip mining and mountaintop removal: blasting off the tops of mountains to extract coal. Judd was the featured speaker at an "I Love Mountains" rally at the state Capitol in 2009.
At that event, she laid much of Eastern Kentucky's problems at the feet of the coal companies.
"There is no doubt that there is a crisis in Eastern Kentucky," Judd said in February 2009. "The crises are systemic, and the system at the root of our 100-year-long crisis is the unchecked power of the coal companies."
Her views on coal and other issues could be more liberal than those of the majority of Kentuckians, political observers said.
Ted Jackson, a Republican consultant, said he thinks it would be difficult for people to view Judd as a credible candidate.
"I think she's a great actress," Jackson said. "But this is not a beauty contest. It's a very serious job."
And McConnell is not just any candidate, Jackson said.
Even McConnell's enemies say that the longtime senator is one of the most disciplined communicators and savvy strategists in politics. McConnell is not going to make the same gaffes as U.S. Rep. Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, Republicans who both lost Senate bids because of statements about rape and abortion.
"He's not going to make mistakes," Jackson said.
There is also the issue of where Judd lives. She was a Tennessee delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
But Voss and Briscoe said they don't see residency as a problem. If she wants to enter the race, she can easily re-establish residency in Kentucky, they said.
"I think Ashley Judd's long-standing involvement with the University of Kentucky gives her cover," Voss said, referring to Judd's frequent appearances at UK basketball games and other sporting events. Even when Judd is not at UK games, she is frequently photographed wearing T-shirts or sweatshirts with her alma mater's insignia.
On Friday, a Facebook page called "Recruit Ashley Judd to run against Mitch McConnell in 2014" had been started.