Hollywood Cachet Doesn’t Always Cash In

by Stuart Rothenberg November 28, 2012 · 11:03 AM EST

Today’s question: What do the following people have in common: actors Alec Baldwin and Robert Redford, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr and former New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter?

Answer: Each of them is a bona fide star, and each was mentioned at some point as a possible candidate for the House or Senate. None of them ever ran.

You can now add actress Ashley Judd to the list of celebrities mentioned as possible candidates for Congress.

I have no idea whether she will run. But EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock has talked up the possibility of a Judd candidacy, probably for the Kentucky Senate seat currently held by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. His seat is up in 2014.

Judd, who is the daughter of country singer Naomi Judd and half-sister of singer Wynonna Judd, has been politically interested and active for years, and according to Schriock, the actress has not “closed the door” on a possible bid.

Certainly some celebrities from the entertainment industry have been elected to office. Ronald Reagan comes to mind quickly, as do former Reps. Fred Grandy, R-Iowa, of “Love Boat” TV fame, and Ben Jones, D-Ga., of the “Dukes of Hazzard,” and former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who appeared in “The Hunt for Red October” and “Die Hard 2,” among other feature films.

But being a celebrity isn’t enough. The late Nancy Kulp, who is probably best remembered for her many years as Miss Hathaway on “The Beverly Hillbillies” sitcom, got only a third of the vote as the 1984 Democratic nominee in an uphill race against then-Rep. Bud Shuster in a very Republican district in south-central Pennsylvania.

I don’t doubt Judd’s passion for politics or public policy. I don’t doubt her ability to raise money — lots of money — from both the entertainment community and from fans and admirers. And I don’t doubt her ability to get coverage for her candidacy on Entertainment Tonight and MSNBC or in the pages of America’s most prominent print publications.

I doubt her ability to get elected to the Senate from Kentucky, or even from her home state of Tennessee, for that matter.

We judge candidates for office very differently from entertainers or average folks, and a Democrat who probably can be labeled as a liberal — Judd’s grandmother recently called her a “Hollywood liberal” — doesn’t stand much of a chance of winning a federal race in Kentucky, particularly in 2014.

For one thing, Judd now lives in Tennessee. She was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention from Tennessee, and she campaigned for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

While Tennessee is next to Kentucky, and both states’ universities are members of the Southeastern Conference, I’m guessing that the people of Kentucky think that someone who has spent the past few years living in Kentucky, not Tennessee, should represent the state in the Senate.

Yes, Judd grew up in Kentucky and attended the University of Kentucky. But that won’t insulate her from charges of carpet-bagging, or eclipse her past political statements and activities.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., was quoted in the Louisville Courier-Journal as saying, “If you had an Ashley Judd-McConnell race, I think it would be as high profile a race as Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown.”

He is right about that. It would be high profile. But unlike this year’s Massachusetts contest, Judd wouldn’t have much of a chance, because Kentucky is not Massachusetts.

Warren beat Brown even though she ran 7 points behind Obama in the state. The president received 61 percent of the vote in Massachusetts earlier this month, but only 38 percent in Kentucky.

Democrats haven’t won a statewide federal race in Kentucky since 1996, when President Bill Clinton carried the state with 45.8 percent in a three-way race. The last Democrat to win a Senate race was Wendell Ford in 1992.

Democrats continue to win the state’s governorship, but as I have noted repeatedly over the past two decades, it isn’t unusual for the minority party to elect a governor or other down-ballot statewide officials.

Voters see state office as different from federal office, which is why voters in Hawaii elected Republican Linda Lingle as governor in 2002 and 2006 (with more than 62 percent of the vote) but gave her only 37 percent this year when she ran for the Senate.

It is also why Kansas elected Democrat Kathleen Sebelius as governor in 2002 and 2006 but has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

In fact, Democrats have won nine of the state’s past 14 gubernatorial elections going back to 1966 without winning a Senate race or carrying the state for their presidential nominees during that time.

I don’t doubt that EMILY’s List would love for Judd to run. I am quite certain that the pro-choice Democratic group could raise a lot of money nationally by using her name in fundraising. But that is part of the reason why she could not win a Senate race in Kentucky. She would be a Hollywood-backed celebrity in a decidedly non-Hollywood state.

In fact, in a midterm election during President Barack Obama’s second term, Ashley Judd would have about the same chance of getting elected to the Senate in Kentucky as Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., would have of being elected president of EMILY’s List.