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.
The exchange appears to be a foreshadowing of the tough reelection campaign the Kentucky Republican faces.
"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.
"This woman has the ear of (at)McConnellPress -- she's his (hash)wife," the group Progress Kentucky tweeted on Feb. 14. "May explain why your job moved to (hash)China!"
McConnell forcefully defended Chao, who was born in Taiwan and who moved to the U.S. as an 8-year-old with her family aboard a freight ship.
"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 re-election campaign. "It is unconscionable that anyone would use blatant race-baiting for political gain."
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 they described as "inappropriate tweets sent by our organization."
"Those tweets did not reflect our values, and we are committed to making sure nothing like that happens again," executive director Shawn Reilly said in a statement posted on the group's website. "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."
Reilly 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."
McConnell is also 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, including Judd, 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.
The 71-year-old McConnell, first elected to the Senate in 1984, is a resilient politician with an unbroken string of victories and a reputation of pummeling opponents. He's taking no chances even with an election more than a year away.
He has amassed a hefty bank account, with $7.4 million on hand of the $10 million he's already raised, mostly from out-of-state donors. That's a huge amount in Kentucky, where TV advertising rates are less expensive than elsewhere.
Given his leadership post and fundraising prowess, McConnell could double that as the election nears.
He spent more than $20 million in 2008 and won by just 6 percentage points over Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford. This time, he'll probably need as much as he can collect. Polls show that McConnell is widely unpopular in the state, and Democratic-leaning groups have started running ads against him.
To endear himself to voters, McConnell has promoted his efforts to protect jobs in Kentucky. In doing so, he has sent them a not-so-subtle message that his clout as Republican leader is reason enough to give him a sixth term.
Factory representatives have credited him with helping preserve some 3,000 Kentucky jobs last year alone. Many were in small sewing factories that were at risk of losing federal military contracts. A deal he brokered with Energy Secretary Steven Chu saved 1,200 jobs at the Paducah gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment plant.
The longest-serving senator in Kentucky history has presided over a GOP revival in the state over the past three decades. Republicans hold both Senate seats and five of the state's six seats in the U.S. House. All were won with help from McConnell, who may not look the part of a political powerhouse but whose keen instincts have kept him at the top.
The chairman of Kentucky's Democratic Party, Dan Logsdon, says McConnell's longevity will be a critical issue. "He's become a part of Washington, and Kentuckians all across our commonwealth have said it's time to make a change," Logsdon says.
McConnell counters: "I have no sense of entitlement about representing Kentucky. Kentuckians always choose the person who earns their support."
As the face of the Republican establishment, McConnell saw his standing in the state threatened during the 2010 elections when his chosen candidate for a vacant Senate seat, then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson, lost to tea party-backed Rand Paul in a primary campaign that pitted the old guard in the GOP against a new band of insurgents.
McConnell's answer to bridging those divisions and, perhaps, insulate himself from a primary challenge was to form strong tea party ties himself.
He quickly mended fences after Paul won the GOP nomination, and helped Paul raise money and develop strategy for the general election. The two have had a relationship of tolerance on Capitol Hill.
The tea party leader praised McConnell as a friend before hundreds of tea party activists last year on the Statehouse steps, and McConnell drew loud cheers. McConnell has recruited Paul's former campaign manager, Jesse Benton, to lead his own re-election effort.
The moves signaled that potential tea party opponents should stand down even if they still disagree with McConnell.
He agitated tea party activists anew when he joined with Vice President Joe Biden late last year to work out a compromise on the "fiscal cliff," which threatened automatic tax increases and spending cuts. One of those activists, David Adams of Nicholasville, said that deal "is just more smoke and mirrors from someone who has a decades-long track record of mostly smoke and mirrors."
Despite grousing, Kentucky tea party groups have had little luck trying to recruit a strong primary challenger. At least two businessmen with tea party ties, John Kemper of Lexington and Matt Bevin of Louisville, are considering runs.
Beyond any primary, McConnell also is taunting would-be Democratic challengers in a comical online video intended to raise second thoughts about taking on a politicians known as brawler. Never hugely popular with his constituents, McConnell has managed to win elections by making his opponents even more unpopular.
The video shows Judd, who has a home in the Nashville, Tenn., suburbs, saying "Tennessee is home" and that San Francisco is "my American city home." It also shows some of Kentucky's leading Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen, saying they won't run against McConnell.
Republican-leaning group American Crossroads is assailing Judd in its own online video that plays up the fact that she lives in Tennessee, and that she campaigned for President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.
Judd has been discussing the prospects of challenging McConnell with Democratic leaders, including Gov. Steve Beshear. Her interest has other Democrats sitting on the sidelines until she makes a decision. She has kept silent in the face of the early attack, as has the state Democratic Party.
Republican strategist Larry Forgy, a Lexington lawyer and former gubernatorial candidate, said it appears McConnell and his allies are giving Judd a taste of what she'd face as a candidate -- a barrage of attack ads playing nonstop for months.
"They figure she's not thick-skinned, that she won't put up with this, that she'll see they'll say everything in the world," Forgy said. "Mitch McConnell is not afraid of her, because she's just not politically positioned in this state philosophically to beat him. But he'd rather run against nobody."