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Will Ashley Judd join cast of stars who shine in political world?

Actress Ashley Judd appears 'Today' show talk about her new book 'All ThIs Bitter And Sweet' New York Tuesday. |

Actress Ashley Judd appears on the "Today" show to talk about her new book "All That Is Bitter And Sweet" in New York, Tuesday. | The Associated Press

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Updated: March 3, 2013 11:58PM



Ashley Judd hasn’t uttered a public peep about running for the Senate in Kentucky, but she is already starring in two political ads put up by her potential opponents that mock the idea of the Democratic actress unseating longtime Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader.

A highlight reel of celebrities in politics shows Republicans may have reason to be nervous rather than amused. Actors do pretty well when they decide to go out on the stump.

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and California Rep. Sonny Bono didn’t exactly play Abraham Lincoln onscreen, but they got elected. So did TV stars Fred Grandy of “The Love Boat” and Ben Jones of “Dukes of Hazzard,” both of whom served in Congress. President Ronald Reagan needs no mention. It’s harder to think of actors who’ve lost — like Nancy Kulp, who starred in the “Beverly Hillbillies” but lost a bid for Congress in central Pennsylvania in 1984.

Actors and athletes who have run and won say Ashley Judd’s celebrity has a political payoff: She’ll have no problem with name recognition, she’ll be able to raise a lot of money, and voters won’t suspect her of going into politics for personal gain. Then again, as Judd already knows, actor-candidates likely have a video trail that can be sliced and diced for attack ads. And their well-established persona may be at odds with what voters want.

“The advantage of being well-known was that when I started to run, it meant that very few people hated me, even if they couldn’t support me,” says Bill Bradley, who became a basketball star on the 1964 gold medal Olympic team and played 10 years with the New York Knicks before he ran for the Senate from New Jersey in 1978. “If I was going somewhere to speak, 100 people would show up as opposed to 25. Which only means that it gave me a chance to succeed or fail to four times as many people.”

Money and the megaphone of fame can help overcome a bad image or a perceived lack of gravitas from years playing a goofy cruise ship purser named Gopher.

Grandy was still acting in The Love Boat when he started running in Iowa’s 1986 congressional election, reading the Farm Bureau Spokesman newspaper in his trailer on the set.

Winning required closing “the Gopher gap” with voters, he says. While his celebrity “pulled people into the tent, what got them to vote for me was 18 months of absolutely grinding retail politics, [going] to every bean feed and pork princess festival and nut fry that would have me.”

In California, opinion surveys initially showed that voters saw action star Schwarzenegger as “a thug in a leather jacket,” says George Gorton, a political consultant who worked on Schwarzenegger’s campaign for governor in 2003. “Even though [they thought] he was a likable thug, we had to undertake a pretty massive effort to change that image. . . . [Voters] loved Arnold, but they just weren’t going to vote for him for the longest time.”

The good, the bad, the ugly

Celebrities and athletes have to clear a “take-me-seriously threshold,” says Darrell West of the Brookings Institution, co-author of the 2002 book “Celebrity Politics.” “But it’s not that high. Voters don’t know that much about public policy — so you have to be conversant with the major policy issues, but you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to persuade voters that you’re a serious candidate.”

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was the lead campaigner for Proposition 49, a successful 2002 ballot measure which funded after-school programs. As such, he gained support from crucial groups in law enforcement and education and developed a public policy profile before he entered the recall election for governor against Gray Davis the following year.

Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, had to overcome not just his self-absorbed characters on Saturday Night Live, but a salacious 2000 Playboy article called “Porn-O-Rama” that his campaign said was satire. Franken squeaked into office after a seven-month recount process.

Sometimes it takes more than one election to clear the bar. Singer and comedian Sonny Bono ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1992 before he won a seat in Congress two years later. For Bono, his celebrity was a mixed blessing — by the time he ran for office he had spent years being the butt of jokes by his then-wife, Cher, on their TV show.

His widow, former U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who won his congressional seat after his death in 1998, says that had an impact at the start of his political career. “Sonny being in comedy or the straight man was harder than had he played Moses parting the Red Sea,” she says.

Judd, however, “is always playing great strong female characters,” Bono Mack says. “She’s schooled herself on what she’s going to be in for and is known for being very bright — and I think Sen. McConnell could have a fight on his hands.”

Judd’s past comments — opposing certain types of coal mining, in favor of starting a family through adoption rather than procreation, and critical of the patriarchal aspects of Christianity — have already been unearthed and criticized by conservative online media. There will likely be comments about “Double Jeopardy,” her 1999 hit film, “Tooth Fairy,” a 2010 box office success, or “Missing,” the now-canceled TV show for which she was nominated for an Emmy in 2012. Judd is also part of a famous family — mother Naomi and sister Wynonna are legendary country music performers.

Bono Mack points out that because of the Internet it’s not only actors who have a searchable history. “In the era of super PACs, whether you said something foolish as a celebrity or something foolish as the guy next door, it will be exposed,” she says. “And it can backfire, as we all know. You can hit that funny bone that constituents have of sympathy if you play it. More so if they like the [actor’s] character to begin with.”

Kentucky has already elected a crossover politician: Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, the Hall of Fame pitcher, retired in 2010 after 14 years in Congress. On the other hand, Nick Clooney, father of movie star George and brother of singer Rosemary, failed in a 2004 race for Congress that his opponent, Geoff Davis, called “Hollywood vs. the heartland.”

Judd has not made a decision on whether to run or even decided when she will make a decision, her spokeswoman Cara Tripicchio says. On Friday, Judd avoided the question when she spoke on public health at George Washington University in Washington. But she has been consulting state and national Democratic leaders in private.

Judd, who announced in December she is divorcing race car driver Dario Franchitti, was raised in Kentucky but lives in Nashville — though she continues to be a high-profile sports fan of the University of Kentucky, her alma mater. A 1998 calendar photo of Judd in a UK hockey jersey and little else would probably pop up during a campaign, too. She has met with prominent state Democrats to discuss the race, and is seeking to talk to more: the speaker of the Kentucky House said last week that Judd had called him for a meeting.

One of her biggest boosters is the state’s sole Democratic congressman, John Yarmuth. “She will get millions and millions of dollars’ worth of earned media. She will be able to draw a crowd wherever she goes,” Yarmuth says. “She has the ability to galvanize most of the energy that is out there to unseat McConnell, and there is a lot of it.”

But McConnell’s opponent will need to be a good fundraiser, as former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann learned when he went up against an incumbent in the 2006 Pennsylvania governor’s race. Swann got out-raised $10 million to $30 million and walloped at the polls, by Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

McConnell already has more than $7 million on hand, and American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-founded PAC that ran an online ad against Judd, appears willing to spend money on his behalf as well. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also targeted the race.

“My expectation is Kentucky per capita will probably be the top state as far as spending by super PACs on both sides,” says state Democratic chairman Dan Logsdon.

Those who’ve been there say that if Judd makes it to Capitol Hill, she’ll be in demand as a fund-raiser again — this time for colleagues. Franken, for instance, has raised more than $32 million since 2008; through his Midwest Values PAC, he gave $1.6 million to other Democrats in the 2012 election.

Grandy, in the pre-PAC era, appeared at candidate fund-raisers “almost every weekend for the first couple of terms that I was a member,” he says. “And to be perfectly honest with you, I had an ulterior motive in mind, which was to get on the Ways and Means Committee.” He succeeded.

Otherwise, celebrities have made sure to keep their heads down both with the public -- Franken stays out of the media except for Minnesota news organizations — and their colleagues.

“Being a freshman is a great equalizer,” Bono Mack says.

Bradley says he waited five months before making a speech on the Senate floor. “I made sure I didn’t talk about basketball for the first three years,” he says. “[If] somebody asked me a question, I answered it. I wasn’t reminiscing about the old days, even though I knew people were interested. I waited for them to initiate it.”

Winning an election is the beginning of the end for stardom. After the first success, you’re a politician, not a celebrity. Bradley’s presidential campaign did not last beyond the early primaries. Grandy lost a governor’s race. Tom Osborne, the winningest football coach in University of Nebraska history, easily won election to Congress in 2000. But six years later, he lost a GOP primary challenge to incumbent Gov. Dave Heineman after Osborne said he would support a bill offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

“There’s a certain honeymoon period,” Osborne says now. “But at some point they really want to know what you can do, what you know, and what you can deliver.”



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