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Secret Tape: McConnell and Aides Weighed Using Judd's Mental Health and Religion as Political Ammo

A recording of a private meeting between the Senate GOP leader and campaign aides reveals how far they were willing to go to defeat the actor/activist.

| Tue Apr. 9, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

This story has been updated with statements from Mitch McConnell's campaign and Mother Jones.

On February 2, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the US Senate, opened up his 2014 reelection campaign headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, and in front of several dozen supporters vowed to "point out" the weaknesses of any opponent fielded by the Democrats. "They want to fight? We're ready," he declared. McConnell was serious: Later that day, he was huddling with aides in a private meeting to discuss how to attack his possible Democratic foes, including actor/activist Ashley Judd, who was then contemplating challenging the minority leader. During this strategy session—a recording of which was obtained by Mother Jones—McConnell and his aides considered assaulting Judd for her past struggles with depression and for her religious views.

Last month, Judd announced she wouldn't challenge McConnell, whose reelection campaign could become one of the most watched races of the 2014 cycle (if a serious Democratic opponent emerges). But at the February 2 meeting, McConnell and his team were fixated on Judd. McConnell told his aides that at the early stage of the campaign they had to clobber any potential challenger:

I assume most of you have played the, the game Whac-A-Mole?” (Laughter.) This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out.

Referring to the Louisville newspaper, he continued, "And we're even planning to do it with the Courier here shortly"—indicating he was eager for battle with the media. (A female aide piped up, "We're anxious for that.")

For much of the Judd discussion, McConnell was silent as aides reviewed the initial oppo research they had collected on Judd and weighed all the ways they could pummel her. The recording was provided to Mother Jones last week by a source who requested anonymity. (The recording can be found here; a transcript is here.) McConnell's Senate office and his campaign office did not respond to requests for comment.

The aide who led the meeting began his presentation with a touch of glee: "I refer to [Judd] 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: Judd was a prominent supporter of President Barack Obama, Obamacare, abortion rights, gay marriage, and climate change action. He pointed out that she is "anti-coal."

But the McConnell gang explored going far beyond Judd's politics and policy preferences. This included her mental health. The meeting leader noted:

She's clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced. I mean it's been documented. Jesse can go in chapter and verse from her autobiography about, you know, she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s.

In her 2011 memoirs, All That Is Bitter & Sweet, Judd recounts her past bouts with depression, noting that she had considered suicide as a sixth-grader and that as an adult she had checked into a rehab center for depression. (The Jesse mentioned might have been Jesse Benton, whose wife is the granddaughter of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and the niece of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)*—who was hired last year by McConnell to run his reelection effort. Three years ago, Benton worked on Rand Paul's successful tea-party-driven Senate primary campaign against a GOP establishment candidate handpicked by McConnell. Benton did not respond to a request for comment.)

The McConnell aides, though, raised the possibility of doing more than calling attention to Judd's well-known history; they discussed how they could make her seem a true weirdo. After citing Judd's previous mental-health issues as possible campaign ammo, the meeting leader played a tape in which Judd spoke about the culture shock and blast of sensory stimulation she has sometimes experienced when returning to the United States from overseas:

I call it the American anesthesia. You know, I come back to this country. I freak out in airports. The colors, the sounds, all those different ways of packaging the same snack but trying to, you know, make it look like it's distinct and different and convince consumers that they have to have it. I mean all of that. The last time I came home from a trip, I absolutely flipped out when I saw pink fuzzy socks on a rack. I mean, I can never anticipate what is going to push me over the edge.

The McConnell aides burst out laughing as the Judd quote continued:

But in a few weeks, you know, I'm driving along smooth roads and I think nothing of it. I'm, you know, choosing between four different brands of cereal from plastic dispensers so that I don't have to have, you know, ugly, mismatched boxes on my shelf, and I don’t think anything of it.

Amid the guffaws, the meeting leader quipped, "So pink fuzzy socks are of concern."

He also contended that Judd was vulnerable on the religion front:

She is critical…of traditional Christianity. She sort of views it as sort of a vestige of patriarchy. She says Christianity gives a God like a man, presented and discussed exclusively with male imagery, which legitimizes and seals male power, the intention to dominate even if that intention is nowhere visible.

He maintained that Judd was no fan of the American family:

I think too she's clearly sort of anti-sort-of-traditional American family. I think Jesse tracked this down. She described having children as selfish, and she thinks it's unconscionable to breed…She also is critical of, of fathers giving away their daughters in marriage ceremonies. She says it's a common vestige of male dominion over a women's reproductive status when her father gives her away at a wedding.

He played another recording of Judd:

I still choose the God of my understanding as the God of my childhood. I have to expand my God concept from time to time, and you know particularly I enjoy native faith practices, and have a very nature-based God concept. I'd like to think I'm like St. Francis in that way. Brother Donkey, Sister Bird.

Laughter erupted again, with one guy in the meeting exclaiming, "Brother Donkey, Sister Bird!" The group didn't seem to realize that Judd was referring to well-known stories about St. Francis, who once preached a sermon to birds—"my little sisters"—and who referred to his own body as the "Brother Donkey." (In her book, Judd identifies herself as a Christian and often refers to church and prayer.)

With his comrades laughing about Judd's reference to donkeys and birds, the chief presenter remarked, "That's my favorite line so far. Absolute favorite one so far."

The McConnellites were keen on portraying Judd as a carpetbagger. The oppo researchers had located clips when Judd had referred to San Francisco or Tennessee as her home. "Not only has she clearly claimed Tennessee as her home," the meeting leader remarked, "she's actually mocked Kentucky to Tennessee audiences. She was bemoaning the low voter turnout among women in Tennessee. She said, 'People, that's worse than even in Kentucky.'" And, he added, she owned a mansion in Scotland.

The McConnell team clearly believed that they had plenty to work with and relished Judd's possible entry into the race. "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."

After running through Judd's liabilities, the group turned to Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 34-year-old Democratic secretary of the state, who was (and remains) a prospective McConnell challenger. The fellow in charge of the meeting referred to a Freedom of Information Act request filed "through a third party" that aimed to uncover damaging information about her actions in government, and he noted, "The best hit we have on her is her blatantly endorsing the 2008 Democratic national platform." He also claimed "she definitely has a very sort of self-centered, sort of egotistical aspect." His evidence? Grimes "frequently" refers to herself in the third person. And to make this point, he played a recording in which Grimes noted she had made the last name of her in-laws "popular" when she married into their family. He seemed to be working with scraps. As of this meeting, the McConnell squad had not dug up much on Grimes.

With Judd's decision not to run, McConnell won't have to decide whether he must assail an opponent for being candid about her past depression or for holding religious views he can mock as unconventional in order to keep his Senate seat. But he and his crew, no surprise, were prepping for an all-out crusade against Judd. Two weeks after this meeting, Benton was interviewed by a local NPR station and said that McConnell had "set a goal of running the best statewide campaign in the history of United States American politics." And that, no doubt, included the best oppo research operation McConnell's hefty campaign funds could buy.

Update: Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager, released a statement responding to this story on Tuesday morning: "We’ve always said the Left will stop at nothing to attack Sen. McConnell, but Nixonian tactics to bug campaign headquarters is above and beyond."

Update 2: The McConnell campaign has reportedly asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Attorney's office in Louisville to investigate how the tape was made.

Update 3: Here is more from Benton, via NBC News: "Senator McConnell’s campaign is working with the FBI and has notified the local U.S. Attorney in Louisville, per FBI request, about these recordings. Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Sen. McConnell’s campaign office without consent. By whom and how that was accomplished will presumably be the subject of a criminal investigation."

Update 4/Mother Jones Statement: We are still waiting for Sen. Mitch McConnell to comment on the substance of the story. Before posting this article, we contacted his Senate office and his campaign office—in particular, his campaign manager, Jesse Benton—and no one responded. As the story makes clear, we were recently provided the tape by a source who wished to remain anonymous. We were not involved in the making of the tape, but we published a story on the tape due to its obvious newsworthiness. It is our understanding that the tape was not the product of a Watergate-style bugging operation. We cannot comment beyond that.

Correction: The text has been updated to reflect that Benton is Ron Paul's grandson by marriage only—he married Ron Paul's granddaughter.

Neon Washable Paint

by on Apr. 9, 2013 at 4:26 PM
Replies (41-50):
Billiejeens
by on Apr. 10, 2013 at 7:49 AM

 

Catastrophic ignorance.

Quoting Donna6503:

I hope you're correct; but, let's say Townhall got a secret tape out of Hilary Clinton's office stating something bad about "opposition research." Do you feel those on our side wouldn't complain about how Townhall got the tape?

My hope is that the GOP won't be able to turn this around ... And focus how the GOP is continuing war on women. My feeling is that this story is going to go away, because both sides do it ... And they both do it well


Quoting NWP:

Yeah....but this is a new age and privacy expectations are out the door.

No one cares how MJ got the tape, only what is on it.

They can't deny what is on the tape. Seems like they would best use their time trying to spin their information and deal with the fall out.

Quoting Donna6503:

You know the GOP is going to try to turn this around on Mother Jones ... Asking how they got the "tape."



Opposition research is the oldest trick in the book





Quoting DestinyHLewis:

 

Exactly. 



Quoting Donna6503:

It worked against Paul Tsongus, by Bill Clinton. Both McCain and Bush used it against each other when they ran against each other. It worked against Hollins, and to a certain extent Hart, by Mondale. It worked against Pat Schroeder by everybody. In fact, everybody does it and by every political party





 



 






 

sweet-a-kins
by Emerald Member on Apr. 10, 2013 at 7:50 AM
Disgusting
Posted on CafeMom Mobile
Billiejeens
by on Apr. 10, 2013 at 7:52 AM

 


Quoting Elsmom1020:

 

Same can be said for the Dems. Dirty politics exist on both sides, no?

Quoting brookiecookie87:

This surprises you about the Grand Old Party?

This seems business as normal. Rarely do you hear the case where they have ammo against an opponent and don't use it.

In fact their are many cases where they don't have ammo against an opponent so they make stuff up.

 

 


 

Billiejeens
by on Apr. 10, 2013 at 7:54 AM
1 mom liked this
No, that was different.
Quoting Carpy:

Kind of like what the Obama camp (including the Obama media) did to Hillary?

Quoting NWP:

Oh there certainly would be whining about that, just like there is for the GOP right here in this very thread...

But that is only an attempt to distract from the content. And I think folks are listening to the content.

The cat is out of that bag, no matter how the video was leaked.

What makes this tape so poignant at this time is not the dirty politics, it is the continual flip disrespect for women and just about everyone else. Just another example of how out of touch the GOP is with reality and how desperate they are to hang on to whatever bit of power they have.

Quoting Donna6503:

I hope you're correct; but, let's say Townhall got a secret tape out of Hilary Clinton's office stating something bad about "opposition research." Do you feel those on our side wouldn't complain about how Townhall got the tape?

My hope is that the GOP won't be able to turn this around ... And focus how the GOP is continuing war on women. My feeling is that this story is going to go away, because both sides do it ... And they both do it well


Quoting NWP:

Yeah....but this is a new age and privacy expectations are out the door.

No one cares how MJ got the tape, only what is on it.

They can't deny what is on the tape. Seems like they would best use their time trying to spin their information and deal with the fall out.

Quoting Donna6503:

You know the GOP is going to try to turn this around on Mother Jones ... Asking how they got the "tape."



Opposition research is the oldest trick in the book





Quoting DestinyHLewis:


Exactly. 



Quoting Donna6503:

It worked against Paul Tsongus, by Bill Clinton. Both McCain and Bush used it against each other when they ran against each other. It worked against Hollins, and to a certain extent Hart, by Mondale. It worked against Pat Schroeder by everybody. In fact, everybody does it and by every political party
















NWP
by guerrilla girl on Apr. 10, 2013 at 7:56 AM
1 mom liked this

That is the most perfect description I have heard of the current GOP in quite a while. Way to go Billie!

Quoting Billiejeens:

Catastrophic ignorance.

Quoting Donna6503:

I hope you're correct; but, let's say Townhall got a secret tape out of Hilary Clinton's office stating something bad about "opposition research." Do you feel those on our side wouldn't complain about how Townhall got the tape?

My hope is that the GOP won't be able to turn this around ... And focus how the GOP is continuing war on women. My feeling is that this story is going to go away, because both sides do it ... And they both do it well


Quoting NWP:

Yeah....but this is a new age and privacy expectations are out the door.

No one cares how MJ got the tape, only what is on it.

They can't deny what is on the tape. Seems like they would best use their time trying to spin their information and deal with the fall out.

Quoting Donna6503:

You know the GOP is going to try to turn this around on Mother Jones ... Asking how they got the "tape."



Opposition research is the oldest trick in the book





Quoting DestinyHLewis:


Exactly. 



Quoting Donna6503:

It worked against Paul Tsongus, by Bill Clinton. Both McCain and Bush used it against each other when they ran against each other. It worked against Hollins, and to a certain extent Hart, by Mondale. It worked against Pat Schroeder by everybody. In fact, everybody does it and by every political party
















Neon Washable Paint

Billiejeens
by on Apr. 10, 2013 at 7:57 AM
1 mom liked this

 

Uh huh

Quoting NWP:

That is the most perfect description I have heard of the current GOP in quite a while. Way to go Billie!

Quoting Billiejeens:

Catastrophic ignorance.

Quoting Donna6503:

I hope you're correct; but, let's say Townhall got a secret tape out of Hilary Clinton's office stating something bad about "opposition research." Do you feel those on our side wouldn't complain about how Townhall got the tape?

My hope is that the GOP won't be able to turn this around ... And focus how the GOP is continuing war on women. My feeling is that this story is going to go away, because both sides do it ... And they both do it well


Quoting NWP:

Yeah....but this is a new age and privacy expectations are out the door.

No one cares how MJ got the tape, only what is on it.

They can't deny what is on the tape. Seems like they would best use their time trying to spin their information and deal with the fall out.

Quoting Donna6503:

You know the GOP is going to try to turn this around on Mother Jones ... Asking how they got the "tape."



Opposition research is the oldest trick in the book





Quoting DestinyHLewis:

 

Exactly. 



Quoting Donna6503:

It worked against Paul Tsongus, by Bill Clinton. Both McCain and Bush used it against each other when they ran against each other. It worked against Hollins, and to a certain extent Hart, by Mondale. It worked against Pat Schroeder by everybody. In fact, everybody does it and by every political party





 



 





 

 



 

candlegal
by Judy on Apr. 10, 2013 at 7:59 AM
1 mom liked this

Even Obama used it, shocking as that may seem, lol.  Look at what he did to Jack Ryan, the republican nominee who ran against him for the  Senate.  This is not limited to one party, they all do it.

Billiejeens
by on Apr. 10, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Here is the Story:

Republicans work to enlighten Kentucky voters on possible candidate Judd.

(we all want an informed electorate, yes?)

Billiejeens
by on Apr. 10, 2013 at 8:04 AM
1 mom liked this

 

None of the libs here have the first single clue what you are referencing, or how Obama cleared the field for his State Senate seat

If Media Matters/ Mother Jones/ Democrat Underground/Think Progress/ Additing Info doesn't promote it - they will never know.

Quoting candlegal:

Even Obama used it, shocking as that may seem, lol.  Look at what he did to Jack Ryan, the republican nominee who ran against him for the  Senate.  This is not limited to one party, they all do it.


 

candlegal
by Judy on Apr. 10, 2013 at 8:09 AM

If they heard it, I am sure they will deny it.  The way he got his start in politics was disgusting.  But everyone tries to pretend it was business as usual.

Quoting Billiejeens:


None of the libs here have the first single clue what you are referencing, or how Obama cleared the field for his State Senate seat

If Media Matters/ Mother Jones/ Democrat Underground/Think Progress/ Additing Info doesn't promote it - they will never know.

Quoting candlegal:

Even Obama used it, shocking as that may seem, lol.  Look at what he did to Jack Ryan, the republican nominee who ran against him for the  Senate.  This is not limited to one party, they all do it.




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