As Democrats encourage actress Ashley Judd to jump into Kentucky's U.S. Senate race and Republicans take every opportunity to call her a Hollywood liberal, a University of Kentucky political scientist said Judd is nearing a deadline to make a decision.
"If she doesn't declare herself in the next 10 days, I think she will have already made a very serious mistake," political scientist Ernie Yanarella said Tuesday. "She has to define herself before she gets defined by those who are her opponents."
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said Tuesday that he talked a second time with Judd last week and is convinced that she would be "an effective and formidable" challenger to Sen. Mitch McConnell.
State GOP Chairman Steve Robertson, meanwhile, sent a letter to all of the state's Democratic lawmakers raising concerns about Judd's positions on a wide range of issues that he insists are out of step with average Kentuckians. Among them were statements opposing coal, the mining of which employs 15,000 people in the state.
Judd, a former Kentucky resident now living in Tennessee, has been talking to Democratic leaders about challenging McConnell in next year's election, but she hasn't said whether she will get into the race.
Yanarella said Democrats clearly see Judd as their best chance of defeating McConnell, although she would need to get the focus off her well-documented political views and onto McConnell's record.
To win the Senate seat, Yanarella said, Judd would have to show that McConnell "has been so deeply absorbed in Republican Party national concerns that he has woefully neglected the pressing needs of Kentuckians."
Defeating McConnell would be the Democrats' biggest prize of the 2014 election. His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending, while Democrats try to hold on to 21, hoping to retain or add to their 55-45 edge.
McConnell already has a hefty campaign bank account, with $7.4 million remaining of the $10 million he already has raised.
McConnell has been taunting potential Democratic challengers in a comical online video intended to make them think twice about entering the race. The video shows Judd, who has a home in the Nashville suburbs, saying, "Tennessee is home" and that San Francisco is "my American city home." It also shows some of Kentucky's leading Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen, saying they won't run against McConnell.
The Republican-leaning group American Crossroads has assailed Judd in its own online video that also plays up the fact that she lives in Tennessee, and that she campaigned for President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.
Kentucky House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover said getting Judd into the race would be a boon for the state GOP because of her liberal views.
"I hope she does enter the race," Hoover said. "I think if she becomes a candidate for U.S. Senate, it will almost guarantee that we will become the majority party in the Kentucky House. Her statements on coal, her statements on traditional values are way outside what everyday, hardworking Kentuckians think."
Hoover said Judd has proven a distraction for the Legislature.
"We can't seem to get pension reform done or any of the other things we need to get done because House Democratic leadership is too concerned about who has talked to Ashley, who didn't talk to her, and who she called or didn't call," Hoover said. "I just think we need to get past someone who lives in Tennessee and focus on Kentucky problems."
Beshear said his last conversation with Judd was via telephone.
"I would say without getting into the specifics of the conversation that I'm convinced she is seriously considering a race for the U.S. Senate," he said. "And we'll see where it goes."
Conway said he thinks any well-known Democrat who can raise money and can articulate a positive vision for Kentucky can beat McConnell.
"He's vulnerable because he's become the poster boy for the gridlock in Washington," Conway said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said the outcry from Republicans about Judd entering the race is telling.
"They're scared," he said.