Dems should choose substance over starpower

Originally published in The Kentucky Standard on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013.

I have to admit, I’m not sold on this whole Ashley Judd vs. Mitch McConnell scenario.

It seems to me that many commentators in the media and in Democratic circles are a little star struck.

And they seem to think voters will be just as enamored at the ballot box.

There have been celebrities that were successful as candidates, and even a few who were successful at serving in office.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota both won governorships. The liberal firebrand and comedian Al Franken won a U.S. Senate seat in 2008 representing Minnesota.

Franken ran in 2008, a good year for Democrats, in a three-way race and squeaked in with less than 42 percent of the vote. Schwarzenegger capitalized on a unique race featuring about a dozen candidates vying to replace recalled governor Gray Davis over a two-month stretch in the midst of a state economic crisis (and, that’s California, which is known for electing celebrities). And Ventura, who in his wrestling days was known as “The Body” and whose outsized personality granted him some leeway as he ran as Jesse “The Brain” Ventura, also capitalized on a three-way race.

So it is possible.

But Judd won’t have the benefits these successful celebrities-turned-candidates capitalized on.

And she will be facing a political heavyweight who is not afraid of getting in the mud. Sure, right now she’s likeable, a quality I have never heard ascribed to Mitch, even by those who admire him.

But he’s never been a politician who won on likeability. He is known for tearing down his opponents, and he will not flinch from doing the same to Judd.

He will paint her as an out-of-touch Hollywood liberal who can’t relate to Kentuckians. Sure, she’s a UK fan. But even in this state, that’s only going to get you so far.

Americans tend to cut celebrities some slack because they entertain us. Such is not the case when it comes to politicians.

Democrats need to find a candidate who has some experience and can point to accomplishments inside the state. Former State Auditor Crit Luallen would be the obvious choice, although she has said she has her eye on the governor’s mansion in 2015. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is another accomplished woman who has won statewide office and is considered a possible candidate for the governorship, but could just as easily become a serious opponent to McConnell.

McConnell’s campaign is obviously worried about Judd. Why else would they have already gone on the offensive, with a GOP-affiliated Crossroads online ad highlighting Judd’s Tennessee residence, her ties to President Barack Obama and some past comments that in this state could be politically devastating.

McConnell is vulnerable. His reaction with the Crossroads video clip proves that point. And the last election was kind to women running for the Senate. It seems like the perfect mix for the right candidate.

I’m just not convinced that star power will carry the election, or even make it a viable contest. Democrats need to focus less on celebrity and offer voters a candidate whose stance on issues of substance will decide the election.