Elaine Chao genuinely likes campaigning.
She likes it so much, says Larry Cox, retired state director for Chao's husband, Mitch McConnell, that she even “takes particular delight” in the kind of foodstuffs one encounters on Kentucky campaign stops -- corn dogs, fried chicken. So much so that she often takes food to go when she doesn't have time to eat at events.
The campaign trail seems to like Chao, 61, right back. While the former labor secretary is known in Washington more for her policy chops, her stumping skills are well known in the Bluegrass State. She is her husband's chief surrogate and has been characterized as McConnell’s secret weapon. It's a formidable and effective partnership.
“The folks have a different experience meeting her than they do Sen. McConnell,” Cox said, “because she is very, very outgoing and does that one-on-one engagement in such an effective fashion.”
After 20 years of marriage to a U.S. senator, she's no stranger to the podium at the local Republican events known as Lincoln Day dinners. This year, things are different. Her husband is facing the most difficult challenge of his career — but Chao has more to offer than ever.
Part of that is because Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes has made women's issues a central part of the campaign. Chao, a former Citibank executive with a Harvard MBA, can say things like, “I have spent my life breaking through glass ceilings, and I have done it with Mitch by my side, supporting me 100 percent.”
And her strengths, friends say, complement his.
“She’s not the traditional back-slapping politician, per se,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky consultant who was a key adviser on McConnell's 2008 re-election bid. But she can still draw crowds and garner local media attention on her own.
“Everything I see is they are very supportive of each other, very much engaged in what their goals are,” said John McCarthy, former chairman of the Kentucky GOP who has known the couple since the 1990s. “That's just their personalities and why they get along so well. They just are very focused people on what they want to get done.”
Key to Chao's ability to connect with people is her compelling personal story. She was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and came to the United States in the hold of a cargo ship -- the best passage they could afford -- with her mother and two sisters when she was 8. Chao didn't speak any English when she arrived, and learned the language by copying everything her teacher wrote on the chalkboard in class and then going over the words with her dad, a sea captain, at night.
“She's overcome incredible adversity,” said Ed Feulner, former president of the Heritage Foundation who has known Chao since the '90s. “She's one of the best people I know.”
As a Wall Street banker, she would later say, she did "very well," but eventually "thought, you know, life must be more than just making money or meeting my profit goals.” So she applied to be a fellow in the Reagan White House.
That's where her longtime friend Shirley Wiseman met her. She remembers being struck by Chao’s dynamism.
“I think her real nature is, she wants to accomplish things,” Wiseman said. “She wants to do the things that are important.”
From there, she ascended in the public policy world. The sea captain's daughter who came to America in a freighter's cargo hold became the head of the Federal Maritime Commission and then served as George H.W. Bush's deputy secretary of transportation, then did a yearlong stint as head of the Peace Corps.
After that, she was president and CEO of United Way for four years. During her time there, mutual friends introduced her to McConnell. They married in 1993. (They have no children; McConnell has three from a previous marriage.) George W. Bush appointed her secretary of labor, and she was the only cabinet secretary to serve for all of his presidency.
Today, she and McConnell live in Washington during the weeks when the Senate is in session and usually head back to their Louisville home after votes are done. If schedule changes mean the minority leader can't fulfill commitments back home, sometimes she will make appearances in his stead. As an adopted Kentuckian with East Coast credentials, she has worked to make the state's issues her own, such as becoming a staunch defender of the coal industry.
She has never run for political office herself — but that doesn't mean she lacks the key skills. “She has this intense ability to remember people’s names,” said Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager. “People she met once four years ago, she can remember. Boom.”
And she’s not afraid to ask for what she wants. Wiseman said that when she and Chao were in Lexington for a campaign event, Chao asked to borrow a jacket Wiseman was wearing for an on-camera appearance.
“She said, ‘You know, Shirley, that white jacket would look lots better on camera than this black one, can I have it to wear?’”
Wiseman obliged, and Chao later sent a thank-you note that read, “You have literally given the shirt off your back for the campaign.”
It may not be her name on the ballot Nov. 4, but Chao is still driving the campaign team hard.
“She is demanding, there’s no question about it,” Cox said. “But she does her part.”
CORRECTION: The quote at the end of this story was incorrectly attributed in the version of this story that originally appeared online. The Washington Examiner regrets the error.