Republican senator Mitch McConnell says wife Elaine Chao is his most valuable team member

Mitch McConnell (right) celebrates with his wife Elaine Chao at his election night event on Nov 4, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. -- PHOTO: AFP
Mitch McConnell (right) celebrates with his wife Elaine Chao at his election night event on Nov 4, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. -- PHOTO: AFP

KENTUCKY - In his speech after the majority of Kentucky voters gave him a thumbs-up for a sixth term, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell thanked his wife Elaine Chao and said she was relieved that voters were sending him back to Washington D.C.

"She wasn't ready to have me sitting around the house working on my resume," Mr McConnell joked, comparing the election process to a "very long" job interview.

"She has been the most valuable player on our team and I am so blessed to have her in my life and by my side," ABC News quoted the 72-year-old senator as saying. He is set to become Senate majority leader next January.

During his campaigning, Mr McConnell had showcased his 61-year-old wife, former labour secretary in Mr George W. Bush's administration, as he parried claims by Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes that he was anti-women.

The battle for women - 53 per cent of the vote - in this year's Senate race had been a non-stop and bruising affair, as Ms Grimes and her campaign repeatedly levelled accusations of sexism and misogyny at Mr McConnell, according to media reports. They attacked his votes not to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act and against equal pay proposals.

In Mr McConnell's response ad, he roped in his wife who called the attacks "desperate and false".

"Alison, supporting the Obama administration isn't pro-women," Ms Chao said. "It's anti-Kentucky."

Ms Chao was the first Asian American to serve in a Cabinet-level position when Mr Bush appointed her secretary of labour in 2001, a position she held until 2009. She is the only member of Mr Bush's Cabinet who had served all eight years of the administration.

Ms Chao, the eldest of six daughters of James and Ruth Chao, is a fine example of how an immigrant has successfully carved a career in the US.

She moved from Taiwan to the US with her family when she was eight years old, according to the official Elaine Chao website.

Adapting to the American life was difficult for Ms Chao and her family as they had no friends to turn to. Every day, Ms Chao, who didn't speak any English, went to school and sat quietly, not understanding anything her teachers or the other students said.

But the hardworking girl would copy in her notebook everything the teachers wrote on the blackboard and show it to her father who would patiently go through each day's lessons with her, said the website.

Ms Chao later earned an economics degree from Mount Holyoke College and MBA from the Harvard Business School. Before entering politics, she held various positions including president and chief executive officer of United Way of America, and Peace Corps director.

Her father James, in the meantime, was successful in his career in the US. He founded Foremost Maritime Corp, which developed trade with Taiwan and was a major agent for shipments of rice during the Vietnam War, the Washington Post reported. Today, Foremost Group is still a major shipping company, said the newspaper.

In 1993, Ms Chao married Mr McConnell, a divorced father of three. As his wife, she has been a great support for him in every sense - not just in his career.

During the mid-terms campaigning, Ms Grimes claimed that Mr McConnell had earned his wealth using his position as a Republican senator but he shot back, saying that he became a millionaire after he and his wife inherited the money.

According to the Washington Post, the couple received an inheritance when Ms Chao's mother died in 2007, which quadrupled his net worth. Huffington Post reported in October that Mr McConnell was worth US $11.97 million (S$15.5 million) and was ranked 32nd on a list of the richest members of Congress.

As a sign of the Chao family's wealth, a family foundation donated US$40 million to the Harvard Business School in 2012

As an Asian, Ms Chao has sometimes been the target of racist attacks. Last year, Progress Kentucky, a group that opposes the re-election of Mr McConnell, suggested that her Chinese roots had led him to embrace anti-American policies, said Huffington Post. In a tweet, the group made a particularly blunt jab, suggesting that Ms Chao was encouraging him to support outsourcing jobs to China.

Mr McConnell hit back at the group for criticising Ms Chao's Asian heritage, saying: "Elaine Chao is just as much an American as any of the rest of them.

"In fact, she had to go through a lot more to become an American," he added.

Progressive Kentucky subsequently apologised for the tweet.

In another incident in 2001, former state Democratic Party chairman Nikki Patton said Mr McConnell "passed up some good Kentucky pork to chow down at the Chinese money buffet".

In 2013, Ms Chao recorded a motivational video aimed at inspiring Asian American children.

"You know everybody talks about being happy these days. And I guess my secret to you is that happiness comes from you. It doesn't come from outside, and it doesn't come from other people.

"Even when bad things are happening, you have the choice to either handle it well with courage, fortitude or you can just completely give up. So you have that power to either be happy or to be sad. And I would suggest that you always choose to be happy," she said.