FRANKFORT — It isn't Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell who comes out swinging in his first TV ad of his 2014 re-election campaign. It's his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
"You've seen the ads attacking my husband," Chao says in a spot that's set to begin airing across Kentucky on Thursday. "As Mitch McConnell's wife, I've learned to expect them. Now, far-left special interests are also attacking my ethnicity, even attacking Mitch's patriotism because he's married to me. That's how low some people will stoop."
The ad is the McConnell campaign's response to what it calls racial slurs made against Chao and to a series of TV spots aired in recent weeks by the liberal group Progress Kentucky, which has attacked McConnell for his pro-gun position.
It's an example of how the 71-year-old McConnell, facing a prospective challenge from actress Ashley Judd, is taking no chances even though the general election is more than 18 months away.
The early ad buy — a TV spot and an accompanying radio ad — has caught the attention of Kentucky Democrats, who say McConnell must be worried.
Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Dan Logsdon said that beginning an ad campaign so early "is an unprecedented admission of fear."
"Kentuckians would prefer to see our leaders working to solve the nation's problems instead of spending all their energy campaigning in non-election years," Logsdon said in a statement.
University of Louisville political scientist Laurie Rhodebeck said she doubts McConnell is scared.
"Concerned might be a better way to put it," Rhodebeck said. "Given some of the commentary that's been in the media the last couple of months, he'd sound foolish if he said he wasn't concerned. He's a good politician. He wants people to think he's taking his job seriously."
Chao makes that point in the ad.
"Mitch works his heart out to protect Kentucky from Washington's bad ideas because Mitch loves Kentucky. We love Kentucky. The meanest personal attacks can never change that," says Chao, who was labor secretary under President George W. Bush.
Rhodebeck said the rationale for the early ad also could be "to frighten the opposition, to perhaps convince supporters, especially financial backers, that McConnell's still got what it takes and that's where their money should go."
McConnell can easily afford the ad buy that his campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said runs into "the six figures." McConnell has a hefty campaign bank account, having already raised more than $10 million. In his last campaign finance report, he reported having $7.4 million on hand. That financial cushion gives McConnell the option to define himself early in TV spots or to respond to opponents.
In this case, McConnell is seeking to capitalize on a liberal group's recent mocking reference to his wife's Asian heritage.
"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!"
McConnell called the tweets "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 just more than a week ago.
Chao was born in Taiwan and 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."
Progress Kentucky removed the offending comments and apologized after a firestorm of criticism that wasn't limited to McConnell and his supporters. Numerous Democrats, including Judd, spoke up, too.
"Whatever the intention, whatever the venue, whomever the person, attacks or comments on anyone's ethnicity are wrong & patently unacceptable," Judd wrote in a Twitter message.
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 by giving 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.
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 on to 21, hoping to retain or add to their 55-45 edge.
McConnell, first elected to the Senate in 1984, is a resilient politician with an unbroken string of victories and a reputation for pummeling opponents.
He already has been taunting would-be Democratic challengers in a comical online video intended to raise second thoughts.
The video shows Judd, who has a home in the Nashville 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.
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.