DES MOINES, Iowa – Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said no one in Congress "has a stronger belief in minority rights" than he does and insists he will continue outreach efforts to black and Hispanic voters despite reports about a former aide's past connections to neo-Confederate groups.
In an interview with Yahoo News in Iowa, where Paul spoke to a gathering of Christian pastors and church leaders last week, the possible presidential contender acknowledged that stories about the aide could set back his efforts, but he defended his commitment to bringing more black and Hispanic voters into the Republican Party.
“I’m not easily dissuaded, so it’s not something that makes me shrink away, it makes me come out even stronger to say that I don’t think there’s anyone in Congress who has a stronger belief in minority rights than I do,” Paul told Yahoo News. “Because my conception of justice is that there have been many times in our history when we have done things unfairly to Japanese Americans, to black Americans. I still think that the justice system does not treat African Americans fairly in regard to non-violent drug crime, with regard to felonies being on your record.”
Earlier this month, the Washington Free Beacon reported that Jack Hunter, an aide who helped write Paul’s 2011 book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, was once "a South Carolina radio shock jock known as the ‘Southern Avenger’ who spoke about “issues such as racial pride and Hispanic immigration, and stated his support for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.” Hunter rebuked those statements in interviews after the report emerged and announced his resignation from Paul’s political team on Sunday.
Skeptics of Paul’s outreach efforts also point to an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow shortly after he won his Senate seat in 2010, where he questioned the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that stopped business owners from discriminating on the basis of race.
As a senator, Paul has made it a priority to speak to black and Hispanic community organizations and political groups. In April, he delivered a speech at Howard University, a predominately black college in Washington, D.C., where he emphasized the historical relationship between Republicans and African Americans.Paul regularly addresses Hispanic groups about the ongoing immigration debate and during his trip to Iowa last week, he joined Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at a “listening session” event with black and Hispanic religious leaders. Next week, Paul will co-host a forum on education in Washington, D.C., where a majority of students who attend public school are members of minority groups, to promote charter schools.
Meanwhile, Paul has championed legislation that would reform how the justice system handles drug laws, which disproportionately affect black men. In March, he co-authored a bill with Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy that would provide judges more flexibility in handling drug cases. Paul said he is planning further work on prison reform that would eventually reinstate rights to convicted felons who serve their time.
“I think if you haven’t committed a crime in a certain period of time, you should be able to get your rights back,” Paul told Yahoo News. “So many African Americans, particularly young males, make mistakes as kids, and I don’t think they should be punished for the rest of their lives. So we’ll keep speaking out on these issues and we’ll see what happens.”
Despite these efforts, Paul acknowledged Republicans continue to struggle with an image problem among minority voters. In the 2012 presidential election, more than 90 percent of black voters and about 70 percent of Hispanics voted for Democratic President Barack Obama.
But Paul argues that Republicans should be able to break the trend by seeking common ground with minority voters on social issues.
“There are millions and millions of African Americans who go to church and who are, in many ways, religiously conservative. We need to ask them what would it take to get people in your congregation to consider voting for a Republican? Because one of the ironies is that if you go into any African American church in Chicago or any big city, they’re predominately social conservative,” Paul told Yahoo News. “If you were to poll African Americans just on issues without party, you would find that they are actually sympathetic to Republican issues on many fronts, but aren’t voting Republican. I think some of it is because they sense either hostility or a lack of kinship or a lack of empathy coming from Republicans.”
He added: “It’s not something you change overnight, so I’m not unrealistic about it.”
A presidential run on the horizon?
Given Iowa's traditional role as the first state to hold a presidential contest, Paul’s presence here raised inevitable questions about whether he'll be a contender in 2016. Paul has welcomed the speculation.
Paul could enjoy a head start on his competitors if he decides to run. Paul’s father, Republican former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, campaigned for president in both 2008 and 2012, and established an extensive field operation in the state, which may serve as the foundation for a future Rand Paul run.
The elder Paul also established a team in Iowa that successfully garnered a majority of the Iowa delegates after the state caucus in 2012. Paul’s former state vice-chairman, A.J. Spiker, is now the chairman of the state Republican Party.
Although there is daylight between Rand Paul and Ron Paul on some policy issues, Paul could face similar obstacles his father dealt with in Iowa, particularly among evangelical leaders and voters. In 2011, Ron Paul’s campaign devoted significant resources to reaching out to Iowa Christians, and now Rand Paul has taken up the task of working to bridge the divide between libertarian Republicans and conservative Christian voters. Ron Paul’s vocal support of de-criminalizing drugs and prostitution, combined with calls to revoke aid to Israel, however, led most conservative Christian voters to look elsewhere for a presidential candidate in 2012.
His son, meanwhile, has taken softer positions on many of the issues that traditionally divide libertarians and conservatives.
In January, Rand Paul traveled to Israel with evangelical leaders, and returned to say that “any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States.” In June, during a speech to a mostly-evangelical audience at the annual Faith and Freedom conference in Washington, D.C., Paul said that the Obama Administration was helping to fund “a war on Christianity” abroad by offering aid to foreign nations he described as “hostile” to the faith.
"It is clear that American taxpayer dollars are being used to enable a war on Christianity in the Middle East, and I believe that must end,” Paul said.
Last week, in Iowa, Paul made his case directly to the pastors at the Iowa Renewal Project conference, where he encouraged religious leaders to participate in politics and argued that “virtue” in society should be pursued not by legislation, but through civil society.
“Virtue and tradition are not things that you really necessarily legislate,” Paul told Yahoo News before his speech. “But that many of our founders thought that they were necessary for a functioning democracy.”
Threading the needle between the libertarian wing of the party and the social conservatives could be an uphill battle for Paul, but if successful, it could be his ticket to success in Iowa if he launches a bid for the presidency. With more than two years to go before the caucus date, Paul has plenty of time to make his case.
Paul is already taking criticism from some establishment Republicans about his unorthodox views. New York Republican Rep. Peter King, who announced last week that he’s considering launching his own presidential bid, called out Paul by name in an interview with The Hill newspaper over his opposition to the federal government’s drone program and his support of non-interventionist foreign policy.
“I don't want that to be the face of the national Republican Party," King said of Paul.
Paul hit back by touting a “big-tent” approach to the Republican Party and calling comments like King’s “exclusionary.”
“I’m not sure what that would mean,” Paul said when asked about King’s comments. “I’m from the wing of the party that believes very strongly in the Constitution, who believes very strongly in balancing the budget—we shouldn’t be spending more than comes in. That if and when we have to go to war, one, we should go to war reluctantly as a last resort, but when we do, Congress should vote on that. He ought to put forward what his vision is for the party. I think we should welcome a lot of people in the party—a big tent, who can disagree. His may be an exclusionary view of the party. Mine is not.”