CHARLOTTE — Earlier this week, Rand Paul was showing the flag in North Carolina, the one that says “Don’t Tread on Me.”
The Republican senator from Kentucky could not boost his guy in the North Carolina Republican Senate primary into a runoff. But was his appearance at a Greg Brannon rally on the plaza outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Monday more about 2016?
Paul brushed aside questions suggesting any such thing, saying: “I think that’s probably too complicated” and “I don’t know if you can read too much into the tea leaves.” But he certainly made the case for a broader tea party base that coincidentally would help any presidential aspirations he might harbor.
Paul’s relaxed delivery to the crowd of 250 or so could not overcome the intensity of Brannon’s frequent display of verbatim constitutional knowledge. When the votes were counted, establishment Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Karl Rove exhaled as North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis avoided a runoff and would now go straight to battling incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
The GOP sees Tillis as its best chance of winning in November, leading to a majority in the Senate. And the tea party should take heart, since Tillis’s positions – on health care, minimum wage and most every other issue – echoed much on any conservative check list.
But Paul came for a last-minute visit, despite Brannon’s anything-but-promising pre-election poll numbers. It was clear, from what Paul told She the People after the rally, that one of the things on his mind was making the tea party more closely reflect an increasingly diverse society. Almost a quarter North Carolina’s registered voters are African American, and the state remains a presidential battleground.
“When I show up for tea party events, I see a lot of people who are working class, blue-collar workers; I see people of every different race and ethnic group, much more so than I do in the Republican Party,” Paul said. “I think the tea party is actually not exclusionary but very inclusionary.”
He also talked about his cooperation with Democrats on issues such as sentencing reform. “The war on drugs out of Washington has disproportionately imprisoned people of color,” Paul said. “Three out of four people are black and brown in prison but white kids are using drugs, too. They’re just not getting caught.” He said, “I’m a Christian; I believe in redemption. I believe in a second chance, and I think you’ll talk to a lot of conservative evangelical Christians and they’ll tell you the same.”
The strategy has been tried before. In other tea party gatherings, from the first national convention in Nashville to Glenn Beck’s rally at the Mall in Washington, you saw more diversity onstage than in the crowd. You could say the same for Republican National Conventions. The pattern continued at the Paul-Brannon Charlotte event, where two African American speakers received the loudest cheers from a mostly white crowd.
Clarence Henderson, who in 1960 participated in the historic lunch counter sit-in Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., has become a popular speaker at conservative events. He was at the Brannon rally to draw the line from his fight for civil rights to his views on limiting government. Paul — who has had trouble explaining his own position on the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — thanked Henderson for moving the country forward.
Paul also told the crowd, “You could be a minority for the color of your skin or the shade of your ideology.”
Another African American speaker, Felice Pete, a nurse anesthetist from Raleigh, N.C., told She the People that the tea party’s “message of freedom” on issues such as jobs and school choice should resonate with everyone. Liberal policies have “mostly harmed black Americans,” she said. When asked about the lack of diversity in the crowd, Pete said: “You can’t drag black people here.” Conservatives “don’t have the bully pulpit or media that liberals have.”
She named her 2-year-old son Reagan, after Ronald Reagan, and she led the “Women Back Brannon” coalition for the doctor who delivered her son.
Paul has some ground to make up as he reaches out. His appearance at historically black Howard University was praised for effort rather than flawed execution. Recently he had to disavow racist comments of Cliven Bundy: He initially supported the Nevada rancher battling the federal government, but later rejected him, providing fodder for one of President Obama’s best jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
We have some other athletes here tonight, including Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Jamie Anderson is here. We are proud of her. Incredibly talented young lady. Michelle and I watch the Olympics, we cannot believe what these folks do. Death-defying feats. We haven’t seen somebody pull a 180 that fast since Rand Paul disinvited that disgruntled rancher from this dinner.
The need for more diversity in the conservative camp was one thing Brannon and Tillis supporters agreed on even at the end of a sometimes bitter campaign. At the Brannon rally, Shelley Townley, 68, of Knightdale, N.C., said, “We are way too polarized.” The veteran of many tea party rallies said, “I’m concerned and would like to see more people of different colors.”
Raye Watson-Smyth, active in Republican groups though no fan of the tea party, was celebrating at the Tillis victory party in Charlotte primary night. She said, “We reach out to all minorities – if they have the same values.”
It’s doubtful she would ever find much common ground with the “Moral Monday” demonstrators gathering May 19 and beyond in Raleigh to protest many conservative laws the Tillis-led state House and GOP majority Senate have passed.
And that enormous divide in political philosophy will not be easily resolved, though Paul no doubt hopes to make some progress by 2016.