Secret Tape: Judd and Aides Weighed Celebrating McConnell’s Essential Decency and Career of Public Service as Political Ammo
A recording of a private meeting between the actor/activist and campaign aides reveals how far they were willing to go to uplift the Senate GOP leader.


Daniel Foster

During a top secret strategy session — a recording of which was obtained by Mother Jones — Ashley Judd and her aides considered celebrating Sen. Mitch McConnell for his “beautiful soul” and his “distinguished record” of serving the people of Kentucky.

Last month, Judd announced she wouldn’t challenge McConnell. But at the February 2 meeting, Judd and her team were fixated on McConnell. She told aides that at the early stage of the campaign they had to smother the incumbent — with love and friendship:

“I assume most of you have played the, the game Whac-A-Mole?” (Laughter.) This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…where we just need to hit Senator McConnell over the head with good will, in the spirit of unselfconscious generosity of a child at play. Remember, politics is like beanbag.”

For much of the McConnell discussion, Judd was silent as aides reviewed the initial oppo research they had collected on McConnell and weighed all the ways they could embrace him. The recording was provided to MOJO last week by a source who requested amicability. Judd’s agent and business managers did not respond to requests for comment.

The aide who led the meeting began his presentation with a touch of glee: “I refer to [McConnell] as sort of the oppo research situation — and I want to be clear that by ‘oppo research’ I mean ‘opportunity research,’ because I look at this campaign, win or lose, as an opportunity to raise awareness of Senator McConnell’s triumphant humanity — anyway I refer to McConnell as sort of the oppo research situation where there’s a haystack of needles, just because truly, there’s such a wealth of material.” He ran through the obvious: McConnell was a loving husband and father of three children. Courteous. Punctual. An expert with a cocktail shaker. He pointed out that McConnell is “anti-rudeness.”

But the Judd gang explored going far beyond McConnell’s virtues and interpersonal skills. This included his unmistakable joie de vivre. The meeting leader noted:

“He’s clearly, this sounds extreme, but he is emotionally effervescent. He radiates pure joy in a way I can’t explain. I mean it’s been documented.”

The Judd team clearly believed that they had plenty to work with and relished the chance to celebrate McConnell. “That’s sort of the tip of the iceberg,” the meeting leader remarked. “Like I said, you know, we’re still drilling down and there’s a wealth of material, and it’s just hard to get all the way around it.”

UPDATE: Judd’s would-be campaign manager released a statement responding to this story on Tuesday morning: “We’ve always said we would stop at nothing to get the word out that Senator McConnell is a Kentucky treasure as precious and majestic as the Red River Gorge, and Nixonian tactics to bug our campaign headquarters is above and beyond any McConnell Awareness Raising we could have hoped to achieve through an actual political campaign.”

UPDATE 2: The Judd camp has reportedly asked the National Archives and the University of Louisville to keep copies of the tape on record to share with future generations.

UPDATE 3: Here is more from the Judd camp, via NBC News: “It’s no secret. If Ashley had decided to run against Senator McConnell, she was going to make it clear that though she disagreed with him on policy, she considered him an exemplary public servant and, frankly, a personal hero. We decided early on that this campaign is about the future. So not only were we not going to comment negatively on any aspect of Senator McConnell’s past — personal or political — but we were not going to use anything McConnell himself said that could be construed negatively, because we understand that do so could potentially elide critical context. And that’s not what election campaigns are all about.

UPDATE 4/MOJO Statement: As the story makes clear, we were recently provided the tape by a source who wished to remain agreeable. We were not involved in the making of the tape, but we published a story on the tape due to its obvious newsworthiness (we realize Judd never actually entered the race, but consider this: if the tape weren’t obviously newsworthy, why would we be publishing it?). We make no apologies for our dogged reporting on the existence of this particular occurrence of politics, nor will we shy from aggressively pursuing evidence of the existence of other occurrences of politics. We continue to believe that secretly taping and exposing what politicians say behind closed doors will make them more honest in public, rather than more dishonest in private. And we are convinced that the most important thing for Mother Jones readers and our progressive allies is that the nonexistent Kentucky Senate race between Mitch McConnell and Ashley Judd avoid any personal mudslinging. Rather, our cause would be best served if the people of Kentucky had an honest choice between a deeply-entrenched, unusually powerful mainstream conservative and a novice Hollywood progressive.

Correction: The text has been updated to reflect that Senator McConnell will pass on his rare bend of wisdom and compassion to three, not two children.