His penchant for putting principles over political discretion has already produced a shake-up of Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul’s week-old campaign, as the “tea party” favorite continues to deal with the fallout from recent remarks questioning a part of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Mr. Paul on Wednesday named Jesse Benton, a campaign aide to his father, longtime Texas Rep. Ron Paul, as his new campaign manager. Mr. Benton was known in the press corps as the gentlemanly, mild-mannered communications director for the senior Mr. Paul’s 2008 GOP presidential nomination run.
Mr. Benton replaces David Adams, who is getting kicked upstairs to be campaign chairman.
The younger Mr. Paul, like his libertarian father, has already demonstrated one indisputable talent - the ability to start a debate.
His interviews with various news outlets before and after his crushing May 18 primary victory over GOP establishment favorite Trey Grayson are shaping up as a classic case study of how a politician can get into trouble for speaking his mind, with even some ardent supporters of the Bowling Green ophthalmologist and political neophyte now saying they wish he had been a little less forthcoming.
In his now-famous interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Mr. Paul’s speculations on parts of the 1964 civil rights law have sparked a major debate among conservatives on issues of race, private property, individual rights and the legitimate scope of government power.
“This question was an obvious ‘gotcha’ question that Dr. Paul should have sidestepped,” said Texas “tea party” activist Eric Bruechner in an interview. “There is absolutely no evidence that Dr. Paul has a racist bone in his body.”
But for high-ranking Republican officials anxious to hold the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, Mr. Paul’s habit of thinking out loud have left them steaming.
“I hope [Mr. Paul] can separate the theoretical and the interesting hypothetical questions that college students debate until 2 a.m. from the actual votes we have to cast, based on real legislation here,” said Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
In another possible complication for Mr. Paul, the Libertarian Party this week was floating the idea of running its own candidate in the race, saying Mr. Paul’s views on restricting abortion and not demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan clash with basic party principles.
“I have heard Rand Paul speak at tea party events, and I can assure you that his positions are that of a Republican,” state Libertarian Party Chairman Ken Moellman said on the party’s website. “While the GOP is going through an identity crisis, the Libertarian Party has stood firm upon the same principles since its founding.”
But it is Mr. Paul’s comments on the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act that have sparked the most comment and discussion. Repeating previously expressed reservations, Mr. Paul told Miss Maddow he was troubled by the one part of the 1964 act that gave the federal government the power to tell private business owners they could not discriminate in deciding whom to serve.
“I abhor racism,” Mr. Paul said last week. “I think it’s a bad business decision ever to exclude anyone from your restaurant - but at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.”
While liberals and Democrats gleefully jumped on the comments, the response has been more conflicted among conservatives, libertarians and Republican Party officials.
Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) President Roy Innis said he thought Mr. Paul “got manipulated into making this public accommodations issue the top story of his revolutionary victory against the Washington establishment. He could’ve chosen a better battleground for a legitimate discussion that goes back to the Magna Carta, that discussion being the fundamental right to private property versus the ‘public good’ as defined by government.”
Asked if he agrees with Mr. Paul’s concerns about federal regulation with private business activity, Frank J. Donatelli, chairman of the GOPAC, a critical source of support for rising Republican candidates, offered the response many GOP officials wish Mr. Paul had given.
“A strong majority of Republicans voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it was necessary to finally tear down the segregated walls that had denied black Americans equal rights for far too long,” Mr. Donatelli said. “Nearly fifty years later, Republicans continue to stand for the principle of equality of opportunity that is the core of the act.”
In a model, politically savvy response, Amy Thomas, press secretary for Carly Fiorina’s campaign for the U.S. Senate nomination in California, checked with her boss and then said simply, “Carly supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Mr. Innis thinks Mr. Paul could have been honest but also more positive.
“Paul should’ve said the passage of civil rights legislation has made our nation stronger and made our country a better place, but [it] also raises serious concerns about the slippery slope of government’s definition of the ‘public good,’ ” Mr. Innis said.
Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell sided with Mr. Paul’s interpretation of the Constitution’s limitations on the powers of the federal government, even when it comes to forcing lunch counter operators to desegregate.
“I would have voted for the bill, which had nine provisions that I support wholeheartedly and one, while the objective was laudable, I would have sought another way to achieve,” said Mr. Blackwell, who is black.
When it came to the authority of the federal government to make private-sector discrimination illegal, Mr. Blackwell said, “What I would have argued for instead is a repeal of the Jim Crow laws that actually required restaurants and other private business to discriminate based on race.”
California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, another tea party favorite, who is challenging Mrs. Fiorina for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, disagreed with Mr. Paul, citing the argument by the now-deceased conservative columnist William F. Buckley that the problem of racial discrimination was so acute in the United States that a federal response was justified.
Mr. Paul “is a libertarian; I am a conservative,” said Mr. DeVore.
“Among the differences between the two is my belief that government, within the bounds set by the Constitution, may legislate basic moral standards,” Mr. DeVore said.
While some Republicans fear Mr. Paul’s candor could cost him the election, Kentucky consultant Tim Havrilek, who sometimes advises Democratic campaigns, said Mr. Paul’s stands against government spending for defense and agriculture could prove more problematic this fall.
“Paul comments on racial discrimination will not be a factor in the Kentucky Senate race,” Mr. Havrilek said. “The negatives for Paul are his comments on the elimination of agriculture subsidies and reducing defense spending, which could very well cost him conservative votes he must count on, since Kentucky relies heavily on agriculture and is also the home of Fort Campbell and Fort Knox.”