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Column: Ashley Judd Would Have Put Up a Good Fight Against McConnell

Wiser Democratic heads prevailed last week as actress Ashley Judd was nudged out of the race to unseat Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior Republican senator. Did the eyes in those heads ever see Judd in Double Jeopardy, one of the great damsel-in-distress movies of all time?

The movie takes its title from the legal rule, guaranteed in the Constitution, that a person can’t be tried twice for the same crime. In the movie — which takes a jailhouse interpretation of the rule — Judd plays a woman whose husband has faked his own murder, for which she is then tried and convicted. In prison, she plots her revenge, and once free, she tracks her former spouse to New Orleans, where he’s living the high life. She finally confronts him at a charity ball, where she shocks him in all his pillar-of-the-community splendor. Don’t worry, she tells him: She’s there not to kill him, just to make him suffer.

And so she did — as she would have discomfited McConnell, the Senate minority leader. In real life, as in the movies, Judd has looks, intelligence, talent, common sense and grit. The daughter of performer Naomi Judd, Ashley has a degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. When she was in Washington in January for the inauguration, she made no comments that would get her called a Hollywood wacko bird, behaving with more sense than many of the people already here. At the time, she was flying high on a poll from the previous month that had her just four points behind McConnell, whom Democrats would love to defeat.

Since then, of course, Judd has taken her toe out of the water. Her numbers would have probably gone down once Kentuckians were informed of her liberal and anti-mining views, as well as residency issues: Although raised in Kentucky, she currently lives on a farm in Tennessee.

And Judd would probably not have had the benefit of a Republican primary that split the party. McConnell’s weekends lately have been spent in bluegrass country, courting conservatives. He has made peace with Sen. Rand Paul after opposing Paul’s candidacy in the 2010 Republican primary. (Lucky for McConnell, Paul, who has since become a star, was in a forgiving mood.)

But while McConnell is unlikely to face a primary, he does not generate enthusiasm among conservatives — or anyone else. Underneath that stiff facade is a stiff facade. What has he done for the base lately? Since vowing to make Barack Obama a one-term president (so much for that), he has neither repealed nor replaced Obama’s health-care law, and last year made nice with Vice President Joe Biden by making a semi-grand bargain to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. With both Democrats and Republicans exhausted by war, and with some deals to be cut that remind Kentuckians of McConnell’s much-reviled bank-bailout vote, McConnell will be a weak and unexciting front-runner — a little like Mitt Romney.

McConnell would be the top get for Democrats in the 2014 midterms that, judging from the map and the high number of Democratic retirements, favor Republicans. So far, Democrats have to defend 21 Senate seats next year, with seven in red-leaning states that Romney won in 2012. On the Republican side, 14 seats are up — only one in a state that Obama won.

But so much depends on the candidate, in addition to how voters feel about incumbency and the establishment. The Tea Party may be waning in influence, but its philosophy isn’t. These days there’s no such thing as being too anti- establishment.

Democrats know this. Listen to an early radio ad (millions have already been spent in Kentucky) in which a play-by-play announcer intones, “It’s tournament time, but Senator McConnell’s playing for the Washington special interests — against Kentucky.” He has “scored big for himself for nearly 30 years.”

A (Louisville) Courier-Journal poll taken in late January found that 44 percent of the state’s voters are waiting to see who runs against McConnell before making up their minds. By a 2-to-1 margin — 34 percent to 17 percent — more voters said they planned to vote against him than for him.

And that’s where Democrats have a problem: Without Judd, they don’t have a candidate. Many top officeholders have decided against running. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is considering it. But she’s the daughter of a former state party chairman — hardly an outsider.

This is the perfect race for the Democrats to try a “Hail Mary” pass. They should nominate a non-pol who can attract national attention. Democrats don’t want to be seen as the party of the elites and so are afraid to nominate an actor. Meanwhile Republicans, who actually are the party of elites, have no trouble nominating the likes of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Republicans have revolted against the idea of Karl Rove deciding who can run. Democrats haven’t. Judd would have made it an outsider-versus-insider race, asymmetric on experience but equalized with star power and a fresh face. Those are two things that McConnell, 71 years old with almost 30 years in Washington, doesn’t have.

I’m betting that Judd of Double Jeopardy will re-emerge to take on Kentucky’s other senator in 2016. Democrats won’t eliminate her twice.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.