The Hollywood movie star and eighth-generation Kentuckian is seriously exploring a 2014 run for the Senate to take on the powerful Republican leader, four people familiar with the matter tell POLITICO. In recent weeks, Judd has spoken with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) about the possibility of a run, has discussed a potential bid with a Democratic pollster and has begun to conduct opposition research on herself to see where she's most vulnerable in the Bluegrass State, sources say.
Whether Judd jumps into the race remains far from certain. She's reportedly also weighing whether to wait until 2016 to instead take on freshman Sen. Rand Paul, sources say.
But if Judd does become a candidate, she would be the biggest celebrity to run for the Senate since Al Franken's successful 2008 bid for the Minnesota seat. And her entrance would add a level of star power to a race that was already poised to be the highest-profile in the country with the Senate Republican leader up for a sixth term in 2014.
"She is doing all the things that a serious candidate exploring a race should do," Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told POLITICO after speaking with her. "I think there are a lot of people, and I was one of them, who wanted to let her know that her candidacy would be an exciting prospect for us. That's what I wanted her to know. A lot of the labor unions, they were telling me that too."
A Judd spokeswoman declined to comment beyond an earlier statement when the actress said she was "very honored" by the consideration, but didn't shut the door on a run.
Democrats privately acknowledge that recruiting isn't easy against McConnell, as the state's strongest Democrats may instead run for governor in 2015 rather than face the GOP leader's machine in a bare-knuckle Senate bid.
That's why some Democrats are calling on Judd to run -- she could raise a ton of cash, energize the base and would have significant name recognition in the state. Yet other Democrats are nervous about her prospective candidacy: She'd be pegged as a liberal, out of touch with conservative Kentucky; she has no experience running for office; and she now lives outside her home state.
In addition to Judd, a wide range of Democratic names have been floated, such as Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Obama fundraiser Matthew Barzun, both of whom are noncommittal about the race.
McConnell's campaign is already talking about how it's prepared to tear apart any Democrat who joins the fray.
"It's going to sting," Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager, warned to any candidates considering a run. "We're going to make sure that you don't come out with your nose clean. We're going to drive your negatives up and very aggressively and publicly litigate your record before the citizens of Kentucky."
"This is not a free run to prime yourself for future office in '15," said Benton, who declined to comment on Judd specifically.
It's far from clear how an untested Judd would fare against the hardball tactics of McConnell when it comes down to the daily grind of a real campaign. She now lives on a farm in rural Tennessee and in Scotland, the native home of her husband, auto racer Dario Franchitti, a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion.
While most voters know Judd from the 20 films she's starred in, she has grown more active in liberal social causes in recent years, such as the AIDS epidemic, abortion rights and environmental matters.
On the latter issue, Judd has emerged as a high-profile critic of the controversial practice known as mountaintop removal mining, in which companies use explosives to blow off the tops of mountains for easier access to coal seams. The practice is common throughout Appalachia, particularly in Eastern Kentucky, where Judd's family stretches back at least eight generations. In an emotional speech to the National Press Club in 2010, she referred to the practice as a coal industry "rape" of Appalachia and "a stain on the conscience of America."
That may play well with the Democratic base and environmentalists, but some Kentuckians are already convinced that President Barack Obama has engaged in a "war on coal," an industry with a strong presence in the state.
This is one of the reasons other Democrats have mixed feelings about the prospects of her candidacy, on top of being a first-time candidate against a savvy campaign tactician like McConnell.
"She's got tremendous name recognition, and she's going to be able to raise the funds she'd need to run against somebody like Sen. McConnell," said Dan Logsdon, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party. "But she also has got some issues with regard to certain stances she's taken regarding coal that the Republicans will certainly try to exploit. Her answer to that, I think, would be frankly that she was talking about coal company practices, not necessarily coal or coal miners.
"But that's a tough issue to finesse in Kentucky," Logsdon said.
Logsdon has not yet spoken to Judd, though he heard she was "seriously" considering a bid.
Yarmuth, the congressman from the Louisville-area, has spoken with Judd, and he's also concluded she's "serious" about a bid after she's begun to reach out to prospective supporters, fundraisers and conduct opposition research on herself.
While Yarmuth acknowledged that her position on mountaintop mining would be a "problem in some ways" and generate "emotional opposition," he said it "would also generate some very positive support," saying it would be a net-plus.
"All I know is she clearly is excited at the prospect of doing it," he said, calling her "very, very knowledgeable on public policy issues."
Democratic women's groups also seem excited about the possibility of a Judd Senate run. Judd worked with the liberal group EMILY's List during this past election cycle, penning a fundraising solicitation calling on supporters to help women candidates who support abortion rights. And at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, she sat on a panel with Gillibrand and EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock, where the actress even spoke about her ambitions for elective office.
"I do receive a lot of encouragement to run," Judd said at the event hosted by EMILY's List and Marie Claire magazine. "And my deepest desire is to be useful. I want to help serve my fellow [citizens]. And I may be doing that to the best of my capacity ... in the space I'm already operating in. Or it may be time to look at possibly running for office."
And that's a scenario she appears to be exploring.
Gillibrand spoke with Judd soon after the elections, according to Yarmuth and another person familiar with the matter. The New York Democrat's office declined to comment. Judd also spoke with a New York-based Democratic pollster, Jefrey Pollock. He declined to comment about their discussion.
The 44-year-old Judd attended the University of Kentucky and is often seen attending Wildcat basketball games -- another contrast from the 70-year-old McConnell, who is a die-hard University of Louisville fan. She also recently completed a master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
If she gets into the race, her celebrity status is sure to bring national media attention and outside money to the race, regardless of whether she actually has a chance to win.
"She grew up in Kentucky, she went to the University of Kentucky, she is generally considered to be one of the UK's biggest fans, she shows up at all the games," Yarmuth said when asked about the political problems caused by her living outside the state. "She's so closely identified with Kentucky that I don't think that would be an issue."
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