Darnell M. Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, finds Sen. Rand Paul’s persistent outreach to black Americans highly intriguing if curious.
Hunt acknowledges that many issues the conservative Kentucky lawmaker has raised are “near and dear” to most African Americans and that it’s remarkable to hear them coming from a member of a “law and order party.” Yet Hunt says Paul faces an “uphill battle” because of widespread suspicion about his motives among those voters.
“The question will be how seriously people will take him or whether or not it’s a bait-and-switch type of thing, where he’s making promises he could never fulfill because his party is not going to allow it,” Hunt said in an interview.
For nearly two years, Paul, a libertarian and Tea Party darling who appears poised to mount a 2016 GOP presidential bid, has been reaching out to African American audiences and other minorities. He has spoken at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., the Detroit Economic Club to a gathering of African American business leaders, and the National Urban League in Cincinnati.
Since raising a furor during his 2010 Senate campaign by questioning the section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting private businesses from discriminating based on race, Paul has evolved into a born-again advocate for minorities’ rights. He rails against the injustice of federal drug sentencing laws, favors restoring the voting rights for some non-violent convicts, highlights inequality in education, champions inner-city economic revival, and decries pernicious NSA snooping that violates Americans’ privacy.
“Three out of four people in prison right now for nonviolent crimes are black or brown,” Paul told a gathering at the National Urban League Conference last Friday, The Washington Post reported. “Our prisons are bursting with young men of color, and our communities are full of broken families. Yet studies show white kids use illegal drugs just as much as African Americans or Hispanics.”
Hunt, a University of California sociology professor and political expert, says Paul wisely understands that if he has any shot at the White House in 2016, he must reach African Americans, Hispanics and other “alienated” minorities. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney received just 6 percent of the black vote and 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012, according to exit polling.
“Of course there are some African Americans who would vote for him and have voted Republican,” Hunt added. “But I don’t think you’re going to see any major movement from the 90-plus percent support for the Democratic candidate in presidential elections among African Americans.”
Paul, 51, the boyish looking ophthalmologist, politician and son of libertarian icon Ron Paul, last year mounted a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor to protest the Obama administration’s use of drones. He espouses views on foreign policy and defense that border on isolationism. And he has become an evangelist for party reformers, including Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, who say the GOP will lose the presidency again unless it expands its political base now dominated by non-Hispanic white males.
On Wednesday, Paul appeared on MSNBC with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), one of two black members of the Senate, to promote legislation to help non-violent offenders find work.
“People deserve a second chance. A lot of kids growing up make mistakes and they deserve a second chance,” said Paul. “In particular, you don’t want them to go back into the cycle of drugs and crime. You want them to be employed, and so the best way to be employed is not to punish them forever with something they may have done as a kid.”
Paul consistently polls in the top tier of GOP presidential aspirants, along with N.J. Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, though rarely with more than 11 percent of Republican preference, according to RealClearPolitics. In a hypothetical general election matchup with Hillary Clinton, Paul lags behind her by nearly 10 points.
“It's Paul's four pillars that make him unusual,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato on Wednesday. “The Tea Party, a bit of libertarianism, a willingness to reach out to non-Republicans including African Americans, and a hesitation about U.S. involvement in foreign wars.”
“Paul may be doing well – if 'well' means scoring 15-20 percent in the primary polls – because he's different, and many Republicans understand they need some novel approaches if they are to win in 2016,” Sabato said.
By mounting a more inclusive “big tent” Republican strategy to broaden his and his party’s appeal to minorities, Paul runs something of a risk. According to an interview with The Courier-Journal, Paul says he’s writing a new book due out in early 2015 with a working subtitle of “Beyond Partisanship.”
Despite repeated appeals to African Americans, Hunt and others say they doubt he can make more than a tiny dent in the black vote two years from now. Georgia Powers, an African American who served in the Kentucky State Senate for 21 years, recently wrote a blistering critique for The Courier-Journal of Paul’s record on civil rights – saying he “anoint[ed] himself liaison for GOP minority outreach.” She added, “You must earn our community’s trust and support. We don’t give it freely. We especially don’t give it to leaders who shake our hands while spitting in our faces.”
Paul bristled in his response to Power’s op-ed piece: “[She] mischaracterizes my views, and does a disservice to a host of issues that I am working on to help minorities.”
Dealing with the suspicions of many blacks is only part of Paul’s challenge. He is likely to face stiff resistance among rank-and-file conservatives on his views of liberalizing prison sentences, spending more on educational programs for minorities, showering tax breaks on struggling inner cities, and more.
In a closely fought GOP presidential primary in two years, some of Paul’s liberal pronouncements on aiding minorities could come back to haunt him. Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and the first black to hold that position, told The New York Times recently Paul would have a tougher time selling his ideas to Republicans than to Democrats.
“I applaud him for making it uncomfortable for the party,” Steele told The Times. “And I suspect he’s going to make it even more uncomfortable. He should, because how can you reconcile saying, ‘Black people, we want you in the party.’ Then party leaders back policy and legislation that alienates the black community.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) praised Paul’s outreach efforts – but says the verdict is out as to whether Paul can make any headway. “I have told him that I very much appreciate the outreach and the fact that he is messaging, going out and talking,” Corker said in an interview yesterday. “Half the battle in trying to appeal to folks is showing up, and he’s doing that and I applaud that.”
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