By Albert Lin
After Mitt Romney’s dismal showing with Black voters in the last Presidential election, much was made about the Republican Party’s need to reach out to that demographic. Only 6.4 percent of Blacks who voted in 2012 cast their ballots for Romney, prompting the Republican National Party to acknowledge, among other things, that “if we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them, and show our sincerity.”
In the 20 months since that November, however, Republicans seem to have stuck with the status quowith one exception. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016, has increased his efforts to connect with the Black community, making several appearances before Black audiences and taking what could be considered anti-Republican stances on certain issues, such as working with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
As The New York Times put it, Paul has become “the only major figure in his party who seems eager to keep going back to African-Americans to appeal for support even if his approach unsettles some fellow Republicans.”
Paul delivered a speech in April 2013 at Howard University, a Historically Black College. Last December he spoke at the Detroit Economic Club. And last week he addressed the National Urban League’s annual conference, an event highlighted by an appearance from Vice President Joe Biden.
Although he hit a lot of the right notes in his National Urban League speech in Cincinnatireferencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, mentioning his support for restoring voting rights for convicted felons and his Economic Freedom Zones to help impoverished regionshis message did not reach the masses. Only about 60 people were in the audience for his talk (organizers attributed the low turnout to the 8 a.m. start time), and even those who liked what they heard remain skeptical.
“I think he’s got some worthy things to say, but it’s really about the track record and a long-standing commitment to this community, African-American community, and I’ve not seen it,” Nicholas Wharton told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I’m not sure I can be convinced by him.”
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore and secretary for the Democratic National Committee, wrote an op-ed piece for the Enquirer the same day titled “Blacks Shouldn’t Be Fooled by Rand Paul.” In it, Rawlings-Blake highlighted two positions that appear to put Paul at odds with the Black community: his criticism of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his support of voter-ID laws.
Paul “doesn’t understand that African-Americans don’t reject Republicans because they have largely ignored Black communities for decades or because they don’t have enough offices in communities of color.” Rawlings-Blake wrote. “Paul should face the fact that the Republican Party pushes an agenda that slows downand even flat-out reversesthe progress our community has made.”
As great as the challenge may be, perhaps Paul’s efforts at the very least have helped the RNC turn a corner with 18 months to go before the primary season begins. RNC Chairman Reince Preibus also spoke at the National Urban League conference. And according to the Times, the RNC has opened offices in Charlotte and Detroit to engage Blacks; it has hired 15 people to work on outreach to Black communities; and it has begun to build a file on Black voters who might be persuaded to vote Republican.
“I’ve heard people say he’s using you. For what” Markham French, who runs a community center, told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader after Paul made an appearance in Louisville last December. “The fact that he’s not likely to get a huge African-American voter turnout for the Republican Party in 2016 shows that what he’s doing is not a selfish act. Because he’s not going to get anything out of it in the short-run.”
So what is behind Paul’s actions Matt Bai of Yahoo! News believes that Paul is trying to make himself more appealing to fellow Republicans as much as he is courting Black voters.
“He needs to reassure the less ideologically pure in his own party, just as Ronald Reagan masterfully did in 1980, when a lot of conservatives worried that he was too extreme for the rest of the country. It’s not simply or even mostly about redefining [Paul’s] party; it’s about redefining himself within it.”