Why Rand Paul’s denouncement of Ted Nugent matters

Ted Nugent has a very specific shtick. He pops up, says something inflammatory about a Democrat -- usually a comment of the undeniably racist or sexist type -- and then watches as his name is repeated over and over by the national media. Sometimes, he apologizes, but only after reaping the benefit of hundreds if not thousands of media mentions.


Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., testifies before a state legislative committee on the legalization of growing hemp at the Capitol Annex in Frankfort, Ky., Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

 

This week, Nugent is in the headlines for comments he made in an interview with Guns.com, during which he referred to President Barack Obama as a "subhuman mongrel" - a term used by the Nazis party to describe Jews and racial minorities to justify the Holocaust.

The comments come as Nugent actively campaigns on behalf of Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott (R), who has avoided answering questions about Nugent's remarks. And, until last night, prominent Republicans have largely looked the other way, saying: "'Anybody that’s offended – sorry, but that’s just Ted."

Those are, actually, the exact words Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) used when asked about the latest comments. Tea party hero and 2016 hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz  (R-Tx.) dodged - refusing to condemn Nugent's remarks or answer questions about whether he would campaign with the "Cat Scratch Fever" man. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich? He called the comments "stupid," but argued that the real problem here lies with the liberal media.  

But, in a 119-character tweet last night, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) became the first major Republican (and first 2016 contender on the right) to unequivocally decry Nugent's latest antics.

Is Paul's stance heroic? Not exactly. Any reasonable person can see the need to condemn Nugent's description of the president. Even Nugent himself eventually admitted that his word choice was unacceptable. But the Kentucky senator's willingness to throw Nugent under the bus is politically significant.

In recent years, Republican candidates have been plagued by racially inflammatory comments made by celebrities, operatives, and candidates on the right. But, rather than distance themselves from people like Nugent and  Donald Trump -- who spent much of 2011 and 2012 leading the "birther" movement -- GOP politicians have tread lightly for fear of alienating any voters within their party base that may agree with the sentiment being expressed.

The GOP has publicly acknowledged its need to make new inroads with minority voters if it is going to be competitive for the presidency in 2016. Exit polls from 2012 show that Mitt Romney carried 27 percent of Hispanic voters and just 6 percent of African American voters - two voting blocs forecast to continue to grow as a percentage of the electorate and likely to be turned off by comments like those made by Nugent .

By decrying Nugent, Paul proves once again that he gets it.

It's the latest in a long line of deliberate moves by Paul (who himself has a checkered past when it comes to potentially racially insensitive comments) to position himself as a more broadly-appealing candidate than fellow conservatives like Cruz. And, it comes at a time when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) -- considered by some to be the GOP's great moderate hope in 2016 -- continues to struggle to get out from under an investigation into his administration's involvement in lane closures as political payback.

Paul has called for the restoration of felony voting rights and for the scrapping of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. These moves, as well as his efforts to shore up Christian conservative support in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, are evidence that not only is Paul seriously considering a 2016 bid, but that he also might have the political fortitude -- and foresight -- to potentially secure the nomination. 

Paul has called for "a new Republican party." And while it remains to be seen if the "New GOP" can earn the buy-in of the electorate, one thing is clear: Paul is actively working to convince voters that he should be its face. 

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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