Why Republicans Thought Ashley Judd Would Be the New Todd Akin

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 28 2013 6:50 PM

A World Without Ashley Judd

Republicans were hoping the actress’s Senate run would give them the gaffes they need to beat Democrats. That’s not how it works.

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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.

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“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.

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