Rand Paul faces setbacks courting minorities

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants to bring more minorities into the Republican fold. But so far, he's had a rough go of it.

"I don’t think there’s anyone in Congress who has a stronger belief in minority rights than I do,” Paul told Yahoo News. It's a telling line about the way Paul wants to be viewed. But while he's made some concrete efforts to bridge the gap between minorities and the GOP, the setbacks he's experienced underscore the difficulty of his task.


(Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Take the recent episode involving a former aide with a controversial past. Earlier this week, the aide, Jack Hunter, resigned on the heels of revelations that he used to describe himself as the “Southern Avenger," wore a Confederate flag mask, and wrote about raising a toast to John Wilkes Booth.

The development simply wasn't helpful to Paul's efforts to be a GOP ambassador to minorities.

And being an ambassador is precisely what he is aiming for. In recent months, Paul's arguably taken more concrete steps than any other prominent Republican toward wooing minorities to support the GOP. He's argued that Democrats have failed minorities, maintained that the justice system unfairly targets blacks in doling out punishment for marijuana possession, and delivered a speech at historically black Howard University in April.

But Paul stumbled through his speech at Howard. He asked whether the audience knew Republicans founded the NAACP, only to hear that they did. And he botched the name of the first black senator elected since reconstruction.

Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley said the senator is undeterred by what's happened thus far, and will continue to make his case to minorities.

"It's not just a narrative, it's Rand's actions -- that he continues to come out in front of these groups," said Bagley. "He's not stopping for what might be perceived as a setback."

Paul's legislative push to give judges more federal sentencing flexibility could win him plaudits from minorities, as cases involving drugs disproportionately affect black men. But another part of his legislative record -- his vote against the Senate's sweeping immigration bill -- threatens to alienate him from minorities.

So does his defense of voter ID laws, an issue over which a contentious political debate has erupted. And while he maintains that he has never wavered in his support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, his 2010 suggestion that private business should not be forced to abide by the act continues to haunt him.

Paul's minority outreach efforts are palpable and undeniable. And the olive branches come at a time when his party feels an urgency to improve its image in the eyes of minority voters, who overwhelmingly voted for President Obama in the 2012 election. The Republican National Committee earlier this year launched a $10 million effort to build inroads with minorities.

The senator will be right back at it next week. He's co-hosting a discussion on the importance of charter and private schools in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Paul believes giving students access to such opportunities can help minority communities thrive, Bagley said.

For Paul, who is viewed as a likely 2016 presidential contender, the question is whether his continued efforts produce better results for him in the long run. If they do, he will have a basis for distinguishing himself from potential 2016 Republican opponents. His natural appeal among young, libertarian-minded Republicans combined with a new strength among minorities would make him a formidable candidate.

But if Paul doesn't gain traction in his push to win over minorities, it will only amplify the GOP's struggles with them. And for the Republican who doesn't believe there is anyone in Congress "who has a stronger belief in minority rights" than he does, that would surely be a disappointment.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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