Prominent Republicans and conservative news media outlets rallied in recent weeks around the cause of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose armed standoff with authorities over grazing rights on federal land had made him an instant folk hero on the right.
But Bundy’s GOP defenders, including Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.) and Rand Paul (Ky.), rapidly abandoned him on Thursday following reports of incendiary remarks that the white rancher made about minorities. Bundy wondered aloud whether blacks would be better off as slaves picking cotton, and alleged that people of color are “against us.”
The controversy marks another major headache for establishment Republicans working to build better relationships with blacks and Hispanics — crucial voting blocs that have increasingly supported Democrats in recent elections. The GOP is in the midst of a messaging tour aimed at reintroducing the party to minority voters, including lawmaker visits to minority neighborhoods and to historically black colleges.
“It undermines the broader, more important goals to rebrand and reestablish a conversation with a community that looks suspiciously upon most of the things you say,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, referring to African Americans in particular.
Steele, who was the RNC’s first black chairman, added that Republicans must declare that “there is no place for this level of ignorance and stupidity around matters of race in our party.”
Bundy and his family are entrenched in a decades-long battle with federal authorities after the rancher refused to pay fines for illegally grazing his cattle on federal land. The dispute escalated this month when Bundy and an armed militia of supporters had a standoff with federal agents who attempted to seize his cattle — a confrontation featured prominently during numerous segments on Fox News Channel.
A growing number of Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits had expressed support for Bundy’s cause, while top Democrats — including Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) — denounced him as a vigilante and domestic terrorist.
The New York Times on Thursday reported a series of racial comments Bundy made during the weekend to a reporter and supporters gathered at his ranch. Later Thursday, The Washington Post obtained a video recorded by a Bundy supporter that included all of the remarks.
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said, according to the video. “I’ve often wondered: Are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
He also recalled 1960s-era riots by what he called “Negro” groups in Los Angeles. He said he “hardly ever” saw a black person until he was almost a teenager and noted that he is surrounded by white faces.
“Where is our colored brother? Where is our Mexican brother? Where is our Chinese — where are they?” Bundy said. “They’re just as much American as we are, and they’re not with us. If they’re not with us, they’re going to be against us.”
Before those comments were publicized, a number of prominent Republicans had offered support for Bundy’s cause. Heller, Nevada’s junior senator, said Bundy and his makeshift militia were “patriots” during a local news interview.
And Paul said he was sympathetic with Bundy’s opposition to federal ownership of grazing land, while distancing himself from the militant side of Bundy’s resistance. “I’m for obeying the law, and I’m not for a violent outcome,” Paul said Monday.
Much of that support evaporated Thursday. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called Bundy’s racial comments “completely beyond the pale” and “100 percent wrong.” Paul said the remarks were “offensive,” while a spokesman for Heller declared them “appalling and racist.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity — who had been one of Bundy’s leading champions — said the comments were “beyond repugnant.” But Hannity also lamented that outrage over the remarks would overshadow the “legitimate issue” of government overreach.
Bundy insisted in several media appearances that his comments had been taken out of context, although he repeated some of his observations regarding slavery. “I’m not racist,” he said on one radio show. “They’re making it a racist-type thing.”
The rancher is the latest in a series of figures — including rock singer Ted Nugent and “Duck Dynasty” reality show star Phil Robertson — who made controversial racial remarks after being championed by conservatives. Republican operatives acknowledge that those associations have damaged the party’s attempts to rebrand itself.
Crystal Wright, a conservative commentator, said, “Republicans are part of our own problem,” given the regular embrace of figures such as Bundy.
“My parents didn’t sit-in at lunch counters so that they would be told that they would have been better off learning how to pick cotton,” Wright said. “We as conservatives don’t do a great job of cleaning up these racial missteps.”
The GOP, which has long struggled to attract minority voters, has redoubled its outreach efforts in the wake of President Obama’s reelection and continued growth in the proportion of nonwhite voters that has made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win national elections.
Prominent Republicans have toured minority neighborhoods nationwide, pushing a message that they are the party that will bring new economic prosperity to impoverished communities. Rep Paul Ryan (Wis.), the party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, has revived his practice of making regular visits to poor areas of inner cities to meet with residents.
Paul and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) also have addressed audiences at historically black colleges. Priebus is slated to speak this month at one of those schools, Central State University in Ohio.
Some Democrats and political scientists argue that conservative ideology focused on “state’s rights” — an issue linked with preservation of slavery and Jim Crow laws — makes it exceedingly difficult for Republicans to attract minority voters. Bundy’s comments, they said, show a common connection between anti-government ideology and racial animosity.
“He is a window into the soul of modern conservatism,” said Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote a book called “Dog Whistle Politics.” He added, “A demonization of minorities and a demonization of the government in modern conservatism — those are inextricably linked.”
But many Republicans, including several black GOP operatives, reject that liberal critique. Although the party stumbles on occasion, they said, Republican history is no more racially clouded than that of the Democrats, who dominated the South during the segregation era.
“I just don’t buy the notion that voters are going to see anything more than a single racist rancher in Nevada,” said Ron Christie, a GOP strategist and former special assistant to president George W. Bush. “In the coming weeks and months we’ll see the Democrats saying, ‘See, we told you that Republicans are racist.’ I don’t think a lot of people will buy it.”
Jaime Fuller contributed to this report.