Leah Wright Rigueur: Rand Paul’s failed appeal to black voters

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Racial Blunders and Disappointment Surround
Rand Paul

By Leah Wright Rigueur

Rand Paul was supposed to be different.

But now, with news of Paul suspending his struggling campaign in the face of disappointing Iowa caucus results, an uncomfortable question looms large: what happened?

There are many well-documented reasons for Paul’s political disappointments – namely Republican voters’ rejection of the Kentucky senator’s brand of libertarianism. But aside from his tea-party-ish approach to politics, Paul’s appeal was also supposed to be rooted in his two-year effort to broaden the Republican tent.

The “unconventional” Republican candidate, pundits and scholars alike touted Paul as the politician that would finally bring black voters into the GOP fold. African Americans, Paul often argued, were an integral part of his strategy to reach the White House. Since 2013, he has publicly courted black voters, using his policy positions on mass incarceration, criminal justice reform and the militarization of the police as entryways into broader conversations with black communities. He’s been outspoken about the Republican Party’s need to court racial minorities, criticizing the GOP’s repeated failure to speak and listen to black voters.

But “Big Tent” rhetoric is nothing new; calculated GOP strategists have been endorsing minority outreach since 1936, when Republicans first lost the black vote. Embracing this trend in 2013, the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report observed that the party had to perform better among racial minorities, or it risk losing future presidential elections. When pressed, most of the Republican presidential candidates will admit as much, even when their policies and talking points undermine their claims. As ridiculous as it may sound, Donald Trump’s campaign, for example, has declared that he intends to win “100% of the black vote.”

These are relatively superficial endeavors, however. In contrast, Paul has emerged as different for two reasons: first, his willingness to play the long game – he’s been actively pursuing the black vote for over two years. Second, he’s gone beyond shallow rhetoric by sponsoring actual policies like the REDEEM Act, which he co-introduced with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Paul’s work in this regard has drawn praise from a diverse cross-section of black communities, from grassroots activists to political elites. The NAACP, which once challenged Paul to a debate over his controversial comments over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, applauded Paul’s outreach efforts and met with him in Ferguson, Missouri in late 2014. Less than two months ago, Paul grabbed headlines for an on-the-ground meeting with black clergy, chief among them Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME in Baltimore. Paul, Bryant has repeatedly declared, is a politician that “gets it” (the other candidate to earn high praise from Bryant? Bernie Sanders).

And to some extent, black voters seem to be far more receptive to Paul than they once were. Take for instance, a spring 2014 poll from Kentucky: 29 percent of black respondents indicated that they would support Paul over Hillary Clinton if he were the Republican presidential nominee. But local politics – especially in one’s home state – is a far cry from the national stage where polls tell a very different story. One national survey from spring 2014 found that only 17 percent of black respondents viewed Paul favorably, while 44 percent held unfavorable views. More than a third had never heard of him. Another poll, this one from 2015, seemed to suggest that Paul would gain a mere 3 percent of the black vote if pitted against Hillary Clinton. Polls are notoriously fickle and there may be many reasons for this perplexing information. For one, few pollsters actually asked black voters about Paul; another explanation may be that black voters – like the rest of the country – simply couldn’t imagine Paul as president.

But I’m more convinced that Paul’s inability to translate outreach into tangible black support has to do with his actual programs and policies, beyond criminal justice reform. Among black voters who know of Paul, there’s an obvious wariness. Most of the black people who praise Paul’s outreach are also quick to list the areas where they disagree with him: abortion, gun control, vaccines, minimum wage, voter ID, taxes, healthcare, discrimination law, and much, much more. According to PEW, 78 percent of African Americans believe the federal government should play an active role in reducing poverty – a position directly at odds with Paul’s limited government approach. In this respect, Paul is not unlike his father, Ron Paul; in 1978, a black Republican consulting firm shied away from helping the elder Paul, privately railing that his “positions on the welfare system, minimum wage, and health care were too far to the right to offer the type of sensitivity Black voters were looking for.”

And though Paul has clearly distanced himself from his father’s abhorrent racial history, the younger politician continues to have his share of public racial gaffes; the Baltimore comment in April, the Cliven Bundy meeting in June, and the “All Lives Matter” moment in August are just a few of the recent incidents that come to mind. These are not insignificant incidents; for many African Americans, moments such as these make Paul’s previous outreach efforts appear insincere. Racial blunders add a layer of mistrust and confirm pre-existing skepticism. Whenever Paul stumbled, it was easy for critics to suggest that his behavior was part of a long pattern of anti-black hostility. Or in other words, to accuse Paul of being just another “typical Republican.”

Therein lies the central dilemma: in order to win over black voters, Paul would have had to fully transcend black suspicion and cynicism about the modern Republican Party. That’s a herculean task, not only because of the party and Paul’s history, but also because of the GOP’s present-day antagonisms on matters of race. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and Paul still has time – and opportunity – to rehabilitate his image and strengthen his relationship with black voters. He is, after all, an active candidate in the Kentucky senatorial race, where black voters will surely play an important role.

The Loneliness of the Black RepublicanLeah Wright Rigueur is assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.