Mitch McConnell's Wife Is Turning Into a Campaign Liability

"If Alison Lundergan ‎Grimes thinks that it's appropriate to attack family in this campaign she better think through that very carefully," a McConnell spokeswoman told a Louisville radio station.

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Elaine Chao, former secretary of labor under President George W. Bush and current spouse of Sen. Mitch McConnell, has been trying to help her husband's campaign.

It's not going great.

Yahoo News reported Friday that Chao was on the board of an organization that gave millions to anti-coal environmentalists. She's also been criticized for appearing in an ad that "oversimplifies" her husband's work to end violence against women.

Screenshot of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal About Us page.

A key part of McConnell's attacks against his opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, is that she's anti-coal, a big liability in a big coal state like Kentucky. But as Yahoo New's Chris Moody pointed out Friday, the war on coal is being fought much closer to home — Chao is on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, an organization that invested $50 million in the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" initiative in 2011. The Sierra Club has taken action against 16 coal plants in Kentucky. 

Chao joined the board in 2012. Depending on one's interpretation, that means she joined after the decision was made to support the Sierra Club, or that she joined despite an earlier decision to invest in the Sierra Club. "Sen. McConnell has a longstanding, principled record of defending coal families and jobs," a McConnell spokesman told Yahoo News. "Decisions made by a board before Sec. Chao ever joined do not change that."

Still, as the Louisville radio station WFPL notes, 1) half of the $50 million was disbursed while Chao was on the board, and 2) Chao is a board member for Wells Fargo, which divested from coal two years after she joined. McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore told WFPL that the campaign was seeking a correction from Yahoo (though it's not quite clear what needs correcting) and blamed the Grimes campaign for messing with family members. "If Alison Lundergan ‎Grimes thinks that it's appropriate to attack family in this campaign she better think through that very carefully," Moore said.

The thing is, Chao has actively campaigned for her husband, both as his wife and a former administration official. In a campaign ad released this week, Chao is identified first as a former secretary of labor, then as McConnell's wife. In the video she touts McConnell's role as co-sponsor of the original Violence Against Women Act. But as Talking Points Memo explained, she neglected to mention that he has also voted against its re-authorization several times, and he supported scaled back versions that didn't specifically protect LGBT, Native American and undocumented women from domestic abuse.

Also, we'd challenge Moore's characterization of the Yahoo story as an attack on McConnell's family. If anything, it's just proof that concern for the environment is so widespread that it even touches the families of coal's most ardent supporters. It's dirty politics to pit a husband and wife against each other, but being called an environmentalist isn't the worst insult a woman can suffer.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.