Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell lambasted a liberal group on Saturday for criticizing the Asian heritage of his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, calling its Twitter messages "racial slurs" and "the ultimate outrage."
"They will not get away with attacking my wife in this campaign," McConnell told about 100 home-state supporters at a Republican dinner in Winchester, Ky.
"This woman has the ear of @McConnellPress – she's his #wife," the group Progress Kentucky tweeted on Feb. 14. "May explain why your job moved to #China!"
Progress Kentucky removed the offending comments from Twitter after Louisville public radio station WFPL-FM aired reports about them. And the group issued two apologies over the past week for what it described as "inappropriate tweets sent by our organization."
"Elaine Chao is just as much an American as any of the rest of them," McConnell said. "In fact, she had to go through a lot more to become an American."
McConnell's aides had already criticized the tweets.
"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," said Jesse Benton, manager of McConnell's reelection campaign. "It is unconscionable that anyone would use blatant race-baiting for political gain."
Progress Kentucky executive director Shawn Reilly released a statement posted on the group's website.
"Those tweets did not reflect our values, and we are committed to making sure nothing like that happens again." He said the volunteer who posted the comments no longer is affiliated with the group.
Criticism of the group wasn't limited to McConnell and his supporters. Numerous Democratic leaders, including actress Ashley Judd, who is considering a challenge to McConnell in next year's election, spoke up, too.
"Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone's ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable," she wrote in a Twitter message last Sunday.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said the comments were "deplorable" and "have absolutely no place" in Kentucky politics.
McConnell and his wife have faced similar slights in the past. In 2001, former state Democratic Party chairwoman Nikki Patton apologized for saying that McConnell "passed up some good Kentucky pork to chow down at the Chinese money buffet."
Senate Republican leader McConnell is gearing up for a tough reelection fight next year in Kentucky.
He wants to prevent one, too.
McConnell is trying to head off a GOP primary challenge by cozying up to the tea party. He's also trying to scare off potential Democratic contenders — actress Ashley Judd is one – by providing a glimpse of his no-holds-barred political tactics.
The strategy seems to be working, so far. No serious Republican opponent has emerged. Democrats haven't fielded a candidate yet, though Judd, a Kentucky native who lives in Tennessee, is considering a run. She would have to re-establish a residence in Kentucky before she could challenge McConnell.
The lack of an opponent hasn't kept McConnell from sounding an alarm over his potential vulnerability. It's a tactic rooted in reality and intended to help raise money.
"We know that President Obama's allies in Washington are doing everything they can to find a candidate to run against me in a primary or a general election," McConnell said in a statement to The Associated Press. "They've made no secrets about their willingness to back anybody right, left, or center to get me out of their way."
Defeating McConnell would be the Democrats' biggest prize of the 2014 election.
His seat is one of 14 that Republicans are defending while Democrats try to hold onto 21, hoping to retain or add to their 55-45 edge.