The fact that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is married to a prominent Chinese American became an issue in his re-election campaign because of remarks about her by a liberal group.
Referring to Elaine Chao of the Heritage Foundation, Progress Kentucky tweeted on Feb. 14, “This woman has the ear of @McConnellPress — she’s his #wife. May explain why your job moved to #China!”
A subsequent tweet was about a donation made last year by Chao’s family to the Kentucky Republican Party: “China Premier grateful to McConnell father-in-law/@kygop contributor-4 his role in developing China industry.”
Chao immigrated from Taiwan when she was 8. She has served as president and CEO of the United Way and as U.S. secretary of labor under President George W. Bush.
In an ad released March 13 by the McConnell campaign, Chao said, “You’ve seen the ads attacking my husband. As Mitch McConnell’s wife, I’ve learned to expect them. Now far-left special interests are also attacking my ethnicity, even attacking Mitch’s patriotism because he’s married to me. That’s how low some people will stoop.
“Mitch works his heart out to protect Kentucky from Washington’s bad ideas. Because Mitch loves Kentucky. We love Kentucky. The meanest personal attacks can never change that.”
Earlier, at a GOP dinner in Winchester, McConnell called the tweets “racial slurs” and stated, “Elaine Chao is just as much an American as any of the rest of them. In fact, she had to go through a lot more to become an American.”
Jesse Benton, manager of McConnell’s re-election campaign, commented, “Secretary Chao and her family are shining examples of the American dream: salt-of-the-earth folks who escaped oppression, came here with nothing, joined our great melting pot, worked exceptionally hard to build a thriving business, and then dedicated so much of their lives to giving back. It is unconscionable that anyone would use blatant race-baiting for political gain.”
Progress Kentucky initially rejected the accusation of race-baiting but faced a barrage of criticism not only from Republicans but also from Democrats, including actress Ashley Judd, who may challenge McConnell in 2014.
“Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone's ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable,” Judd tweeted.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon called the comments “deplorable.”
In an apology issued on Feb. 26, the group said, “Progress Kentucky is dedicated to ensuring the people of KY have the kind of representation in the U.S. Senate they deserve. In an effort to educate KY voters as to the varied interests of Sen. McConnell we provided information about connections between the senator and business and government interests in China. This information included an inappropriate comment on the ethnicity of the former secretary of labor, Elaine Chao, the senator’s wife.
“We apologize to the secretary for that unnecessary comment and have deleted the tweets in question. In addition, we have put a review process in place to ensure tweets and other social media communications from Progress KY are reviewed and approved prior to posting.”
In a follow-up message on March 1, Progress Kentucky Executive Director Shawn Reilly said, “Those tweets did not reflect our values, and we are committed to making sure nothing like that happens again. We also apologize to our many supporters, and all Kentuckians working for change in 2014, for those communications. Comments with references to race, ethnicity or sexual orientation have no place in any debate, and we are deeply embarrassed by such a mistake.
“Our key goal is to elevate the conversation about Sen. McConnell’s record and the kind of representation Kentucky deserves. We didn’t advance that goal with a few of our tweets. We pledge to do better in the future.
“Finally, we recognize we did not handle this situation appropriately. We should have reacted quicker and stronger in rectifying the situation. We are doing that now.
“We are continuing to update our social media procedures to ensure that in the future all messages represent the official position of Progress Kentucky, and we will use the next few days to focus on connecting with our key supporters and mending relationships we may have damaged.
“The volunteer responsible for the tweets is no longer affiliated with Progress Kentucky. Additionally, (spokesman) Curtis Morrison has resigned. We wish them success in the future and thank them for their support.”
When public radio station WFPL-FM broke the story, Morrison did not explicitly admit any wrongdoing on Progress Kentucky's part, saying, “It’s not an official statement. It’s a tweet. And we will remove it if it’s wrong. I follow Ashley Judd on Twitter and she removed a tweet the other day … People make mistakes in tweets. It happens. Inferring that Elaine Chao is not a U.S. citizen was not our intention.”