Rand Paul is courting black voters unabashedly, traveling a path not taken by most Republican presidential hopefuls since Jack Kemp blitzed urban America with his message of economic hope and opportunity two decades ago.
From his speech at a historically black university to his essay decrying the militarization of local police, Mr. Paul is clearly trying to bridge a gap between the party of Abraham Lincoln and a minority voter base that has massively voted for Democrats.
But whether the senator from Kentucky can leverage his libertarian conservative views and anti-government message into a presidential electoral advantage depends on factors that may extend beyond his control.
Will black Americans’ frustration with President Obama translate into more Republican voters? Will Mr. Paul’s GOP rivals play the race card aggressively? Will the whole effort devolve in the press simply into a debate over limited government versus social engineering?
All of these questions will help determine the success of Mr. Paul’s strategy.
His foray is garnering praise in much of the media and from some politicians in both parties, but is dividing Republicans who know they must expand their voter base to look more like the face of America.
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“Sen. Paul is overriding his principles in a mistaken belief that it is necessary to somehow reach black voters,” former Federal Election Commission member Hans A. von Spakovsky said. “He makes a very big deal about saying he believes in the Constitution and keeping the federal government within the limits of its power as defined in the Constitution — a very worthy goal.”
Yet Mr. Paul is sponsoring a bill that would force restoration of voting rights for felons, overriding state laws in what some conservatives believe is a violation of the 14th Amendment, said Mr. von Spakovsky, now senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Paul has been giving speeches about this because he is under the mistaken belief induced by left-wing civil rights groups that this is a big issue for black voters.”
Brian Darling, Mr. Paul’s communications director, disputed the claim that the restoration of federal voting rights is unconstitutional.
“Lawyers in Sen. Paul’s office, including myself, concluded that Sen. Paul’s legislation is constitutional,” Mr. Darling said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — who in 1983 as a third-term congressman from Georgia founded the Conservative Opportunity Society to focus attention on economic growth, education, crime and social issues affecting urban and minority Americans — praises Mr. Paul’s pursuit of black voters.
“Rand Paul is seriously engaging non-Republicans, including African-Americans, in a number of areas,” Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times. “His comment on the violence in Missouri were important and on point. The worry over militarization of the police is legitimate.”
Veteran Republican campaign pollster John McLaughlin also sees Mr. Paul’s black outreach far more positively — perhaps too positively for some of Mr. Paul’s conservative critics who espouse “principles over politics.”
“It seems that Rand Paul is simply giving passion to his libertarian, anti-big-government views,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “It allows him to go beyond the usual Republican base and attract younger voters and others.”
Mr. McLaughlin noted that President Obama, as the first black U.S. president, has had near unanimous support among black voters.
“It will be interesting to see, as the president’s second term ends, whether that vote will stay strongly Democratic or fragment to the benefit of Republicans like Paul. At this stage, I don’t think this is a calculation on Paul’s part, but we’ll have to see if his passion grows the way it did for Jack Kemp,” he said.
Mr. Kemp was a New York congressman who, in campaigning first for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 and as Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential running mate, went out of his way to court blacks and Hispanics in their own neighborhoods.
The Dole-Kemp ticket won 12 percent of the black vote, with Ross Perot snipping off another 4 percent, leaving 84 percent for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. That made Mr. Kemp quixotically heroic to some on the right and foolish to others. In the intervening years, black Americans still have not come the Republicans’ way.
The world has turned many times since Dwight D. Eisenhower got 39 percent of the black vote in the 1956 presidential election and Richard Nixon got 32 percent in 1960. Since then, black support has gone downhill for the Republican Party.
Republicans haven’t come close to matching the overt friendliness to black America of Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, who ordered the desegregation of the armed services and regulations against racial bias in federal hiring.
About half the Republicans in the House and a third in the Senate voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which self-described “constitutionalists” said extended federal power far beyond what the Constitution’s framers had in mind. Yet many of them thought that breaching the Constitution’s bulwarks guarding individual freedom and states’ rights was morally justifiable and pragmatically necessary.
It’s an open question whether black voters will discern more genuineness than political pandering in Mr. Paul’s actions and words, his fellow Republicans say.
With a speech to a largely black audience at Howard University and his essay on Ferguson, Missouri, in Time magazine last week deploring the militarization of local police, Mr. Paul has been trying to repair the Republican Party’s relationship with black voters.
Evidence indicates that most black Americans have come to look to Democrats for government help in equal employment opportunity, welfare aid and evenhandedness in the application of criminal justice.
“Anyone who thinks race does not skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention,” Mr. Paul wrote at the beginning of his essay addressing the ongoing violence over the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white policeman.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake agrees but advises fellow blacks to beware of Mr. Paul’s blandishments.
“While I applaud anyone’s efforts to reach out to the black community and share ideas that would improve our families’ lives, Paul doesn’t understand a very important piece of the puzzle: earning our trust,” she told Cincinnati.com. “For Paul to claim to stand up for our values while opposing policy after policy that advances our community is not the way to do this.”
Ms. Rawlings said that in discussing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “Paul criticized the law, even emphasizing that he believes private businesses should be able to do whatever they want, including discriminate. He explained his opposition by saying, ‘I think it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant, but, at the same time, I do believe in private ownership.’”
She hit squarely on Mr. Paul’s dilemma: that to be true to the Republican philosophy of limited government and individual freedom is to damn racial discrimination, and to argue it’s not up to government to tell private businesses whom to hire.
Mr. Paul’s explanation, however, makes black leaders bristle.
The questions of economic fairness since emancipation a century and a half ago are as much personal as they are political for black Americans. As with so much else in life and politics, truths can be found on both sides, said Niger Innis, a civil rights leader with decidedly conservative views.
“Sen. Paul has been courageous and in the vanguard of expanding the GOP playing field,” said Mr. Innis, the Congress of Racial Equality national spokesman. “He’s doing an interesting two-step dance politically. His libertarian credentials are being reaffirmed with his questioning of drug sentencing laws and the militarization of local law enforcement. At the same time, he’s using those very same issues and others to appeal to urban-dwelling minorities that are often affected by said policies.”
Mr. Innis, whose father is a black conservative who has led the Congress of Racial Equality since 1968, said Mr. Paul “is attempting a daring and risky strategy. The minority participation in the GOP primary and caucuses is minimal to nonexistent, and Sen. Paul has the potential to alienate base GOP voters that are tough-on-crime Republicans. This potential vulnerability will be exploited by his primary opponents.”
The way forward
Mr. Innis said Mr. Paul would be wise to refine his pronouncements on militarization of agencies at both the local and national levels. He cited Ferguson and “the militarization and Gestapo tactics of the Bureau of Land Management in the case of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who refused to pay taxes for 20 years.”
“Coupling of these examples may help insulate Sen. Paul from attacks from the right,” he said.
Former CIA counterintelligence specialist Philip Giraldi made his Rand stand on principle over politics with a swipe at Republicans who eagerly partake of federal largesse.
“Rand isn’t likely to obtain much support from black or brown voters, and he is sure to alienate some older Republicans who will nevertheless continue to vote GOP unless the party takes away their Social Security and Medicare,” he said.
Mr. Giraldi said Mr. Paul is doing what most other Republicans think he is doing: “He’s trying to appear moderate and presidential for independents, who will be the swing vote in any election.
“He is probably also at least somewhat sincere in believing that the GOP must eventually come to terms with the fact that the country is changing demographically, but that won’t necessarily be a factor in 2016.”
Mr. von Spakovsky said there is nothing wrong with speaking in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“In fact, Republican candidates should do that,” he said. “But the way to reach black voters is to convince them that returning this country to the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution is their best path to achieving their own goals of economic success, equal protection under the law, and the liberty and freedom that protects all of us.”
“Betraying constitutional principles is not the way to do it,” said the George W. Bush appointee.
Republican Party election laws attorney Terry Campo said Mr. Paul’s extended hand to black Americans is on the right track, even if that track doesn’t lead to the White House.
“Perhaps it’s because I am sitting in my home having coffee in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, when I say this, but I think what Rand is doing is noble and necessary, even if it is not likely to pay off in winning over African-American voters in the near term,” Mr. Campo said.
He said a political party wins over voters “by building a relationship years before the election, not by persuading them in the weeks before.”
“Even if we only win over a few more percentage points of the African-Americans who are now ‘bloc voting’ for Democrats in the 90 percent range, it will mean more Republicans win elections and African-Americans can gain a seat at the table,” Mr. Campo added.