Kentucky is my home, and recently, talk of our state's political future has made headlines everywhere. We don't mind the spotlight. But before our state's 2014 race for U.S. Senate heats up any further, I feel compelled to offer an open letter to Ashley Judd.
Dear Ms. Judd,
I respect the compassion, engagement on the issues, and even bravery that's led you to dip your toes -- if not yet your foot and whole leg -- in the shark-infested waters that is American politics. But before you wade further, please allow me to offer some unsolicited advice as to how you, an activist, actor, and eighth generation Kentuckian, might succeed in this arena and unseat the Republican incumbent, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell:
1. Talk less, listen more. You have 100 percent name recognition, and folks here already know that you're liberal on many issues. At this stage, you don't have to tell us so much about who you are; it's much more important that you hear from those you could be representing. Travel around the state, stay with our families; visit our schools, our businesses and our factories, our coal mines and our tech centers, our shopping malls and our farms. Understand our priorities and the challenges we face every day. Your family may have been here for generations, but you need to get to know the individuals that make Kentucky what it is today.
2. Choose your words wisely. Be disciplined. Your personality and tremendous likeability will engage our state -- folks will give you the benefit of the doubt and listen to you because they like you. To that end, please, avoid those tone-deaf Hollywood-isms such as "We winter in Scotland." That kind of language is far more alienating to the average Kentucky resident than your pro-choice stance.
3. Raise as much cash as you can, and then raise more. McConnell's strength is not that Kentuckians like him; as Chris Cillizza wrote in the Washington Post, no matter which candidate Democrats nominate, the contest will be competitive. His strength is that he has a ton of cash, and spends it on destroying his opponents. Trust this: he will be tougher and crueler than any casting agent or film critic. But this goes to your strengths. With the powerful national fundraising you could deliver, a Judd candidacy could blanket the state in critical advertising and visibility, and potentially drown out his negative campaign tactics.
4. Invest, early and often. Build a strong, grassroots ground operation that will be prepared well before things get heated and ugly. The Obama campaign proved how powerful and effective a ground operation can be in tough-to-win states. Learn what it takes to build a successful ground operation by talking to the experts who've run campaigns in hard-won states like Virginia and North Carolina. Hire skilled field operators as soon as possible. Thousand of Democrats are waiting to be energized in a serious effort to defeat McConnell. Engage them, excite them and they will work hard for you and for their future.
5. To those who say you'll be a drag on the top of the ticket? Ignore them. In 2010, I was the media consultant on a state senate campaign in Hardin County, where an unknown farm supply store owner and Democrat beat a 20-year incumbent Republican. No Republican state legislative incumbent in Kentucky had lost in 20 years, and the district had not voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate since 1976. Even thought U.S. Senator Rand Paul won the county by 20 points, his win didn't damage opportunities for challengers in other statewide races. If you build a grassroots campaign that engages voters and makes McConnell's voting record the core issue, then every Democrat running for any office will benefit.
6. Remember that all politics is local. We know you have big ideas on important issues such as climate change and women's rights. But to win the state, you'll need to focus on water projects and bridges, too. The late U.S. Senator Robert Byrd is a model of how it's possible to support the coal companies as well coal workers and their families.
If you take the time to really listen to the voters, invest the time and money to build the best ground operation possible, and raise enough funds to match McConnell on the air, then you can not only beat Senator McConnell, but soundly thump him.
That's my advice. Unsolicited though it may be, I hope you heed it. And I look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail.