It was only fair that the news broke on Twitter. At 2:07 p.m., Kentucky time, actress and activist Ashley Judd tweeted that she’d “decided” on her next move. Over seven more tweets, she explained that she was “currently unable to consider a campaign for the Senate,” ending months of speculation and false starts.
Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, saw the news via a retweet. He’d written 61 short messages about Judd, around 10 times as many as he’d written about a competitive Senate race in Michigan. When Scotland decided on a date for an independence referendum, Dayspring reminded readers of how Judd “wintered” there. When Judd spoke at the George Washington University, Dayspring shared the collective snark of unimpressed reporters and warned that “Dems in Kentucky worry about her bizarre & controversial views.”
But the dream was over. Dayspring moved on. “We’re plumbers, not philosophers,” he says. “Our job is to point out the weaknesses of candidates. There was intense media focus on the possibility that Judd might run.”
And why was that? It wasn’t just that Judd was sort of famous, or could potentially raise $20 million, or that readers of popular websites like to click on photos of attractive women. (In the modern media economy, no one can dismiss that factor.) Kentucky wasn’t on any Democrat’s Senate map for 2014, and no handicapper thought Sen. Mitch McConnell could lose to Judd. In 2012, Barack Obama only won 38 percent of the vote in Kentucky; even Walter Mondale cracked 40 percent. The polls that showed McConnell’s approval ratings diving through the Earth’s crust still gave him the edge over Judd.
That’s why Republicans liked her. A Judd candidacy promised a sort of year-long cosmic revenge on Democrats. The official GOP history of 2012 is that the party blew elections thanks to “bizarre comments” (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s term) about rape. Judd was famous, and Republicans wanted to make her more so. She’d called mountaintop mining the “state-sanctioned, federal government-supported coal industry-operated rape of Appalachia.” She’d called procreation “selfish.” Chris Cillizza, the Washington Post’s Moses of political CW, has pronounced Democrats “better off without Ashley Judd” for all these reasons.
The plan was to turn Judd into a Bizarro Todd Akin. Republican candidates kept getting asked about “rape gaffes” from other states? Fine: Let Democrats in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Alaska deal with someone who says “I have been raped twice, so I think I can handle Mitch McConnell.” Let ‘em have their own gaffe prone distraction.
According to Jess McIntosh, the communications director for the pro-choice/pro-female PAC Emily’s List, none of that was going to work. “It was so emblematic of the problem Republicans have in talking about this,” says McIntosh. “They thought mentioning rape was the issue. No. It was the insensitivity toward women and toward rape survivors, which repeated by drawing that ridiculous correlation. It showed that Republicans did not learn any lessons from 2012. They still don’t know what they did wrong! They’re holding rape sensitivity trainings and they don’t know.”
McIntosh was a founding member of an informal pro-Judd brain trust. The Judd-for-Senate buzz began last summer, when the actress worked the Democratic National Convention. (She was a delegate from Tennessee.) She gave short speeches at state delegation breakfasts, and gave another at an Emily’s List event, where she first heard cheers of “Run Ashley Run.” (This happens sometimes when a celebrity gives a decent political talk. See also: Ben Carson.) Anita Dunn, a veteran of the White House communications team, became a Judd Whisperer. So did Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
But other Democrats fretted about Akin-nization, and they won out. Obama strategist David Plouffe was among those who feared how “Republicans would use [Judd’s] candidacy and Hollywood background to attack Democratic Senate candidates running in other red states.”
The Judd Whisperers disagreed. People were underrating the amazing power of umbrage. Judd’s critics couldn’t help themselves, making fun of the actress whenever she mentioned rape. Stephen Crowder, an emcee at the Conservative Political Action Conference, asked the crowd, “What is this obsession with Ashley Judd and rape?” and got (unfairly) pilloried online. It was clockwork: A conservative news site would report on Judd, and the “what’s with her and rape comments” jokes would flow.
“The reason why Akin was a problem for the entire GOP was that he was not an outlier,” says McIntosh. “He said what they had been trying to legislate all along. [Paul] Ryan co-sponsored a bill [HR3] that did the Todd Akin gaffe. (It created a definition of “forcible” rape. Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment was meant to describe “forcible rape.”) It’s not a replicable strategy unless there’s something like that undergirding it.”
It was even simpler that that. In April 2012, Judd wrote a piece shaming media outlets (liberal ones!) that published click-bait photos of her face looking puffy. “The assault on our body image,” wrote Judd, “the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification is what this conversation allegedly about my face is really about.” The article rocketed around social media, shared or liked on Facebook a half a million times. A year later, conservative blogs asked whether America was ready for the “First Puffy-Face Senator.”
A Judd campaign was bound to test the power of this compelling nonsense. McConnell was already on the beat. He’s gotten a month of good press by condemning ProgressKY, a “super PAC” that couldn’t raise money or file FEC reports, because it attacked his Taiwan-born wife Elaine Chao in clumsy racial tones. The modern Senate race doesn’t need to be high-minded, careening from policy debate to policy debate. No: It careens from meme to meme, umbrage to umbrage. And the Juddless Democrats will have to prove that somewhere else.