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Forcing Ashley Judd-Al Franken comparisons ignores basic politics

Forcing Ashley Judd-Al Franken comparisons ignores basic politics
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ashley Judd attending the second session of the Democratic National Convention in 2012.

WASHINGTON — Actress Ashley Judd is moving toward challenging U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell next fall, which means the comparisons to another entertainer-turned-lawmaker have already begun rolling out.

National Journal last week tapped friends and supporters of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to give Judd some advice on how to run her campaign. Buzzfeed went one step further Monday and said Franken’s victory in 2008 helps prove, in part, “how Ashley Judd can win.”

The Judd-as-Franken comparison is apt insofar as both are Democrats who made their names in the entertainment industry and decided to get into politics after having laid the groundwork for such a transition earlier in their careers (Franken as a satirist and radio host and Judd as a graduate of the Kennedy School).

False equivalency

But beyond that it’s a false equivalency. Just because Al Franken won a Senate seat in 2008 doesn’t itself prove Ashley Judd can do the same in 2014. Every factor that benefited Franken’s candidacy in 2008 is likely to hurt Judd next year. She will be a (1) Democrat in Kentucky, (2) running in a mid-term election, (3) against a Republican, (4) who’s been in the Senate since 1985. To say Judd can win simply if she adopts Franken's political strategy ignores all of that.

The Judd-Franken parallels have a simple problem: Kentucky is not Minnesota. Democrats struggle mightily in national races there. The state has two Republican senators (McConnell and Rand Paul), and hasn’t had a Democrat in Washington since 1999, when Wendell Ford retired after 25 years in the Senate. Kentucky hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996, and has given Republicans double-digit victories each of the past four cycles (Mitt Romney won the state by 22.7 percent last fall).

Minnesota is more of a bluish-purple at this point, and its tendency to favor Democrats in statewide races, especially of late, is well documented. For a Democrat with statewide aspirations, Minnesota is much friendlier turf than Kentucky.

Where Franken had a strong Democrat (Barack Obama) on the top of the ticket in 2008, Judd will get no such help. Candidates in the incumbent president’s party tend to struggle during mid-term elections. Plus, Obama isn’t popular in Kentucky to begin with, further hindering any Democrat who runs.

For his part, McConnell is the leader of his party in the Senate, an established incumbent who’s gotten less than 50 percent of the vote precisely once — in 1984. McConnell is polling poorly, but a lot of that can be attributed to his weakness with members of his own party, less than 60 percent of whom tell pollsters they approve of his work as senator. It’s more likely those voters will try to force a primary than vote for Judd over McConnell in a general election. Accordingly, prognosticators think McConnell’s likely to hold on to his seat, something that wasn’t said about Norm Coleman in early 2007.

This isn’t to say Judd can’t win in 2014, just that it’s going to be harder for her than it was for Franken in 2008 (and knocking off an incumbent U.S. senator is hard enough, which Steve Kornacki details at Salon).

Franken strategy

To be fair, maybe Judd could learn a bit from Franken’s strategy as a candidate and senator — spurn the national media in favor of focusing on her state, promote her policy chops and marginalize her past career, etc. But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a Democrat in Kentucky, running against the five-term Republican leader of the U.S. Senate.

Saying Ashley Judd could win if she simply opens up Al Franken’s playbook is a bit like playing basketball on a slanted floor: Having a game plan will help, but you’re still going to struggle getting the ball up the court.

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry

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Comments (1)

False erudition

Yes, the urge to make these comparisons are an example of false erudition offered by people who don't know anything, in this case, the politics of either Minnesota or Kentucky.