I respect the compassion, engagement and maybe even bravery that's led actress Ashley Judd to dip her toes in the shark-infested waters of American politics. But before she wades further, Judd might want to consider a little advice from a fellow Kentuckian as to how she might succeed and unseat Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell:
■ Talk less and listen more. She has 100-percent name recognition, and is already known to be liberal on many issues. Rather than tell us who she is, she should hear from those she could be representing.
■ Travel around the state and stay with our families; she should visit schools, businesses and factories, our coal mines and tech centers, our shopping malls and farms.
■ Learn more about our priorities and the challenges Kentuckians face every day. Her family may have been here for generations, but she needs to get to know the individuals who make Kentucky what it is today.
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■ Be disciplined, and choose her words wisely. Her personality and tremendous likeability will engage our state, and folks will give her the benefit of the doubt. To that end, I hope she can avoid tone-deaf Hollywood-isms such as, "We winter in Scotland." That kind of language is far more alienating to the average Kentucky resident than her pro-choice stance.
■ Raise as much cash as she can. McConnell's strength is not that Kentuckians like him; as Washington Post political analyst Chris Cillizza wrote recently, no matter which candidate Democrats nominate, the contest will be competitive. McConnell's strength is that he has a ton of cash, and spends it on destroying his opponents. McConnell will be tougher and crueler than any casting agent or film critic.
But with powerful national fund-raising abilities, Judd's candidacy could blanket the state in advertising and visibility and potentially drown out his negative campaign tactics.
■ Invest in a strong, grass-roots ground operation that will be prepared well before things get heated and ugly. The Barack Obama campaign proved how powerful and effective a ground operation can be in tough-to-win states. She and her team should talk to experts who've run campaigns in hard-won states like Virginia and North Carolina, and hire skilled field operators as soon as possible. Thousands of Democrats are waiting to be energized in a serious effort to defeat McConnell. If they are engaged, they will work hard for a competitor's race.
Those who say Judd will be a drag on the top of the ticket are mistaken.
In 2010, I was the media consultant on a state Senate campaign in Hardin County, where a first-time candidate, a farm supply store owner and Democrat, beat a 20-year incumbent Republican. No Republican state legislative incumbent in Kentucky had lost in 20 years, and the district had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976.
Even though Sen. Rand Paul won the county by 20 points, his win didn't damage opportunities for challengers in other statewide races. Every Democrat running for office in the state will benefit from a grass-roots campaign that makes McConnell's voting record the core issue.
Finally, Judd needs to remember that all politics is local. She may have ideas on important issues such as climate change and women's rights. But to win the state, she needs to focus on water projects and bridges, too. The late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd offers a model of how to support coal companies, as well as coal workers and their families.
By taking the time to really listen to voters, invest time and money to build the best ground operation possible, and raise enough funds to match McConnell on the air, Judd can not only beat McConnell, but soundly thump him.