FRANKFORT — Now that actress Ashley Judd has ruled out a run for U.S. Senate, Democrats are looking for someone else to take on Republican Mitch McConnell, a merciless campaigner who left his last five challengers politically pummeled.
Several top Democrats have refused, including Gov. Steve Beshear who is widely seen as strongest potential challenger to Kentucky's longest serving U.S. senator in history. Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson has ruled himself out. So have Attorney General Jack Conway and former state Auditor Crit Luallen, as well as a handful of Democratic up-and-comers.
"Everybody is pushing at somebody else," said Democratic strategist Danny Briscoe. "They've all said 'not me, not me, not me, but I know somebody that's good.'"
Of the state's top-elected Democrats, only Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes hasn't ruled out a McConnell challenge, and she's the one that most others are urging to get into the race. So far, Grimes has been coy about her intentions, acknowledging that she's getting lots of encouragement to run but sidestepping questions about whether she will.
Grimes, a rising star within the Kentucky Democratic Party, has continuously traveled the state for speaking engagements since she was elected in 2011, clearly laying the groundwork for higher office. Her spokeswoman, Lynn Sowards Zellen, said Friday that she has nothing to report about Grimes' intentions.
Despite polls showing Beshear is viewed far more favorably than McConnell, the 68-year-old second-term governor has said he doesn't intend to run for any office again. Beshear faced McConnell in 1998 in a bruising campaign that ended in defeat.
"If he wants to kick back and retire, I can't say he's letting us down by not running," Briscoe said. "If he were 60, I might have a different view of that. He would be the strongest candidate the Democrats could run without question, but I also don't second guess his decision to go back to the farm and kick back if that's what he wants to do. He's earned that."
University of Louisville political scientist Dewey Clayton said Democrats clearly are trying to nudge Grimes into the race.
"She may not have the Hollywood star power that Ashley Judd has, but the feeling is ... that she very well could get the job done," Clayton said.
Polling, Clayton pointed out, shows McConnell is more vulnerable now than ever before.
"When you talk about conditions being right, I think now would clearly be the time," Clayton said.
Republican strategist Larry Forgy, a Frankfort attorney, said from a distance it appears Democrats are in a shoving match to avoid the race.
"The regulars are trying to throw Alison Grimes under the bus," he said. "There's only one Democrat who would be a decent opponent to McConnell, and that's Beshear. He's the only competitive candidate they've got, and everybody else is a sacrificial goat."
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said the unwillingness of Kentucky Democrats, including U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and state Auditor Adam Edelen, to challenge McConnell is telling.
"Despite the hollow spin from national Democrats that Kentucky will somehow be competitive, in-state Democrats have been running away from this race in droves," Benton said. "And it's not because they think Mitch is vulnerable. They have passed because they know he won't be beaten."