A Democratic group is under sharp criticism for controversial online messages about Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife.
For months, the liberal super PAC Progress Kentucky has attacked McConnell and held demonstrations at his offices and home.
Recently, the group turned its attention to McConnell’s wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, with a focus on her race.
In a Feb. 14 Twitter message, Progress says: "This woman has the ear of (Sen. McConnell)—she's his wife. May explain why your job moved to China!"
The Tweet links to a website run by conspiracy theorist and radio host Jeff Rense, alleging Chao, who was born in Taiwan, discriminated against American workers during her tenure.
Progress Kentucky spokesman Curtis Morrison says the group's leaders do not review every Tweet and initially denied any had mentioned Chao superficially. But he later told WFPL that a group volunteer had sent out the messages targeting the former secretary.
"It’s not an official statement. It’s a Tweet. And we will remove it if it’s wrong," he says. "I follow Ashley Judd on Twitter and she removed a Tweet the other day, she Tweeted to you Phillip. People make mistakes in Tweets. It happens. Inferring that Elaine Chao is not a U.S. citizen was not our intention."
Other messages from Progress’s social networking account about Chao have run for the past several days, saying her "Chinese (money)" is buying state elections. According to campaign finance records, members of Chao’s family donated $80,000 to the Kentucky GOP last year.
The super PAC has also posted vocal support of their criticism, one of which said "not many know McConnell's wife is Chinese."
Team Mitch campaign manager Jesse Benton called the comments "disgusting" and demanded an apology from the group.
"We just think this kind of race-baiting has absolutely no place in American politics. We think Progress Kentucky should really be ashamed of what’s been going out under their name. People should be fired and a public apology should be issued," he says. "I think everybody of good conscience in Kentucky should agree that these sort of attacks should be pushed to the side."
Chao emigrated to the U.S. as a child where she eventually became the first Asian-American woman to be appointed to a cabinet-level White House position. McConnell and Chao married in 1993, and he has received hefty contributions from family, friends and business leaders in the Chinese-American community ever since.
In years past, opponents have questioned McConnell's relationship with his father-in-law, James Chao, who owns Foremost Maritime Corp., a New York-based shipping company. The business has trade connections to China and Chao's father has ties to its government.
McConnell has said those donations and connections have no effect on his foreign policy views or votes.
Morrison says Progress Kentucky was trying to show how Chinese interests influence McConnell's decision-making, but admits the super PAC may have crossed a line and offended Asian-Americans residents.
"It's a fine line, and that is not our overall message. we’ve got some Tweets there that shouldn’t be there and I’ll make sure they come down. We don’t want to cross that line," says Morrison. "We’re not after anybody because they are an immigrant, but I think it’s fair to question whether or not there’s a conflict of interest."
Chao currently serves as a distinguished fellow at the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation.
UPDATE 2:30 p.m.
The Washington Post's Aaron Blake picked up our story, and reports the GOP is calling on several top Democratic leaders to denounce Progress Kentucky.
Republicans are calling for top Democrats (lots of them) to repudiate the super PAC: “This is disgusting and must be condemned immediately by top Democrats across the board, including Jim Messina, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DSCC Chairman Bennet, and DCCC Chairman Steve Israel – not to mention Senator Schumer and Senator Reid,” said a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Brad Dayspring.
UPDATE 3:45 p.m.
The leader of Progress Kentucky is pushing back against national criticism that their Tweets are racially insensitive, and accuse the McConnell campaign of distracting from the senator's record.
"Progress Kentucky strongly denies that the organization has engaged in any such thing," said Shawn Reilly, executive director of the super PAC. "Benton’s statements are an attempt to divert attention from the fact that Mitch McConnell has engaged in the selling of the American middle class overseas for decades."
Reilly goes on to say that McConnell has pushed for policies that are favorable to China and continues to highlight the relationship with James Chao.
"When the Premier of China publicly thanks an industrialist for his role in developing Chinese industry, then that industrial and his family contribute $80,000 to the Kentucky Republican Party, it is fair to question whether McConnell is selling out the middle-class," says Reilly.
Earlier today, however, a Progress spokesman told WFPL they were planning to issue an apology to Chao.