According to a new profile in The New York Times, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's wife is Tracy Flick incarnate. Reporter Jason Horowitz writes, "Those who have encountered [Elaine] Chao describe her as an unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there."
Horowitz paints Chao as McConnell's energetic, accomplished partner-in-crime, and he is quick to note that the Kentucky senator's campaign is making great use of her as he prepares to face Democratic rival Alison Lundergan Grimes in November. The Grimes campaign has portrayed McConnell as an old man uncommitted to helping women — so much so that John Oliver recently showed a joke Grimes campaign ad featuring McConnell as an "old, white, wrinkled" penis on his HBO show. The McConnell campaign obviously thinks Grimes has been unfair. McConnell's senior adviser Josh Holmes tells Horowitz that she "runs a campaign that tries to paint a picture of Mitch McConnell as having some kind of a blind spot for women’s issues. Obviously we have a pretty strong firsthand testimonial from somebody who can speak to how untrue that is." That's Chao. Sen. Rand Paul, McConnell's unsteady ally from Kentucky, adds:
She is someone who I say is really great for Senator McConnell and needs to be out there really all the time. Because I think we need more strong women who have been successful in their careers out there.
And Chao has been successful. She's a Chinese immigrant who graduated Harvard Business School and worked her way up to serving in the Bush White House. Now, she "organizes the orientation for the spouses of Republican senators" and is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. (Which is interesting, because Heritage has not always been loyal to McConnell.) Horowitz notes that at Harvard,
Chao kept card files on her classmates, then later kept tabs on their careers. As labor secretary, she had gold-colored coins minted with her name in bas-relief and employed a Veep-like staff member who carried around her bag. And [today], she can recite the names of people who have donated to her husband — and how much they gave, friends say.
That energy and determination has obviously helped McConnell over the years (he's often compared to a turtle). But because of her background, Chao sometimes gets reduced to a certain stereotype, even by friends. Washington lawyer Stuart Bloch, the longtime friend who set McConnell and Chao up in the 1990s, calls Chao a "tiger wife."
The latest NBC poll shows McConnell leading Grimes ever-so-slightly, 46 percent to 45 percent.