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.”