FRANKFORT, Ky. – Campaign aides to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell proposed using actress Ashley Judd's past bouts with depression against her if she had decided to challenge him in his re-election bid next year, according to a secret recording posted by a magazine.
Mother Jones released a recording Tuesday along with an article about a private meeting in which the aides discussed opposition research into potential Democratic challengers. Aides talked and laughed on the recording about Judd's political positions, religious beliefs and past bouts of depression.
The FBI is looking into how the recording was made after the McConnell campaign accused opponents of engaging in "Watergate-era tactics." The magazine reported that the recording was provided last week by a source who requested anonymity.
"She's clearly — this sounds extreme — but she is emotionally unbalanced," a McConnell aide said of Judd during a February meeting at the Louisville campaign headquarters. "I mean it's been documented ... she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s."
Judd spokeswoman Cara Tripicchio criticized the McConnell campaign for considering making depression a campaign issue.
"This is yet another example of the politics of personal destruction that embody Mitch McConnell and are pervasive in Washington DC," Tripicchio said in a statement. "We expected nothing less from Mitch McConnell and his camp than to take a personal struggle such as depression, which many Americans cope with on a daily basis, and turn it into a laughing matter."
Judd has been open about her bouts with depression. She spoke to the American Counseling Association's national convention in Cincinnati in March, telling more than 3,000 counselors from across the country about her experiences.
McConnell was asked several times at a news conference Tuesday about the propriety of attacking Judd over depression. He did not directly answer, but repeatedly brought up an incident last month, when Progress Kentucky tweeted an insensitive remark about his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
"As you know, my wife's ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky and apparently they also bugged my headquarters," he said. "So I think that pretty well sums up the way the political left is operating in Kentucky."
The McConnell campaign asked the FBI to look into whether the Louisville office was bugged.
"I can confirm that Sen. McConnell's office did contact us and we are looking into the matter," FBI spokeswoman Mary Trotman said.
McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton alleged in an email to supporters that "liberals and their media allies" were "wire-tapping our field office to spy on us." Benton used the issue as a fundraising appeal, asking supporters to send donations "to help us spread the truth."
"We've always said the left would stop at nothing to attack Senator McConnell, but Watergate-style tactics to bug campaign headquarters are above and beyond," Benton said in a statement.
On the recording posted on Mother Jones' website, McConnell began the meeting by telling aides the campaign had entered "the Whac-A-Mole period" and explained that means "when anybody sticks their head up, do them out."
The magazine reported the aides huddled on Feb. 2 in a private meeting to discuss potential Democratic opponents, including Judd and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes, a rising star within the Kentucky Democratic Party, hasn't ruled herself out as a challenger.
An unidentified aide said Judd had made a public statement as a Tennessee delegate to the national convention about her support of President Barack Obama, an unpopular political figure in Kentucky. The aide said that statement could be used against her. He also said the statement raised another issue: that Judd is a resident of Tennessee, not Kentucky.
In another instance, the aide played a recording of Judd talking about her religious beliefs: "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."
The campaign aides then laugh loudly.
An unidentified man then says "the people at Southeast Christian would take to the streets with pitchforks," referring to an evangelical megachurch in Louisville.
In the discussion of Grimes, the aide said she had endorsed Obama.
"She was too smart to use his name in a sentence," the aide said. "But she says, 'my support of our party and our nominee is well known, and it's no secret I'll be in North Carolina to support our nominee and the party.'"
The aide charged that Grimes has "a very sort of self-centered, sort of egotistical aspect" and that "she'll frequently use herself in the third person."
Grimes was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.
It wasn't the first time that Mother Jones has written about recordings from private meetings.
The magazine was the first to report about Republican Mitt Romney's comments to donors paying $50,000 apiece to attend a private reception that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government, see themselves as victims and believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.
Romney's critics used the video to argue that he was out of touch with average Americans during the last presidential campaign.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said the recording is telling about McConnell.
"I certainly do not know anything about how this may have happened," Logsdon said. "However, it's clear that this is the McConnell we all know: leading a negative, nasty campaign determined to lash out at his opponents since he doesn't have any accomplishments to point to."