A liberal super-PAC in Kentucky is backtracking following a bipartisan uproar over a racially tinged attack on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report Poll: Senate should confirm Gorsuch Cardboard cutouts take place of absent lawmakers at town halls MORE's (R) wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
The tweet linked to a webpage run by radio host Jeff Rense. The page says that Chao, who was born in Taiwan, discriminated against U.S. workers while she served as Labor secretary in former President George W. Bush's administration.
McConnell's campaign said Progress Kentucky should be ashamed for the tweet.
"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," McConnell's reelection campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said in a statement.
The tweet initially drew the attention of local media in Kentucky, where McConnell is facing reelection in 2014. But by Tuesday afternoon, the controversy had grabbed the attention of both national Senate campaign organizations — and actress Ashley Judd, who is considering seeking the Democratic Senate nomination in the state.
"Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone's ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable," Judd tweeted.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) called on all Democrats to denounce Progress Kentucky for the tweet.
"This disgusting attack and this organization must be condemned immediately by top Democrats across the board, including Jim Messina, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DSCC Chairman [Michael] Bennet, and DCCC Chairman Steve Israel — not to mention Senator [Charles] Schumer and Senator [Harry] Reid,” NRSC Communications Director Brad Dayspring in an email to The Hill.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) also condemned the tweet, even as it slammed McConnell as "the least popular Senator in the country."
"Mitch McConnell’s the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with Washington’s partisan political gridlock and that’s why he’s the least popular Senator in the country, but the DSCC does not agree with the remarks in question and thinks they are completely out of line," said DSCC national press secretary Justin Barasky.
A spokesman for Progress Kentucky, which is planning to support a primary challenge against McConnell, said that the tweet was sent out by a volunteer and would be removed.
"It’s not an official statement. It’s a Tweet. And we will remove it if it’s wrong," Progress Kentucky spokesman Curtis Morrison told Kentucky's WFPL News.
A number of Progress Kentucky's tweets have attempted to draw a connection between McConnell and China. According to WFPL, Progress Kentucky retweeted a suggestion that McConnell helped Chao gain citizenship and boost her family economically.
"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," Morrison said. "We don’t want to cross that line,” Morrison told a reporter. “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."
Progress Kentucky has been moderately active in the Kentucky race, organizing protests at McConnell's home and issuing a report with other Democratic groups on his campaign donations. But unlike a number of better-funded progressive groups, the PAC has not yet launched any air attacks on the senator.
According to its donation page on ActBlue, a Democratic fundraising site, the group has only received about $4,000 from donations through the site. The group did not file an end-of-year fundraising report, and received a notice from the Federal Election Commission warning of a potential audit or monetary penalties in case of a failure to file.
"It is unconscionable that anyone would use blatant race-baiting for political gain. Progress Kentucky should be ashamed of themselves. We hope all Americans can agree that these disgusting tactics have no place in American politics as we try to bring people together to solve our difficult problems," Benton said.
Shawn Reilly, executive director of Progress Kentucky, said in a release that the group "strongly denies" that it had engaged in "race-baiting," and accused the McConnell campaign of distracting from issues.
“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," he said.