Rand Paul Stumbled at Howard, but He’s Still Reaching Out to the Black Community

Elahe Izadi

Just days after Sen. Rand Paul received a skeptical hearing at Howard University, he’s out at another historically black college. Paul spoke Friday at the Simmons College of Kentucky, described by the school’s mission statement as an “institution of biblical higher education dedicated to educating people in the urban context.” 

During an interview with NPR’s Michel Martin, Paul said his office made the request to speak at Howard because “I like speaking to college kids and I'd never spoken before to a historically black college.” The Howard event prompted the invitation from Simmons, he added.

The Simmons College event was much more informal than the Howard speech; it wasn’t broadcast on C-SPAN, and Paul was seated while speaking to students in a class, according to severalphotos tweeted by reporters present.

Paul stumbled during his appearance at Howard, particularly as he waded into talking about the GOP and black history. A number of Howard University students said they were unmoved in their views. The fact that he came to speak and take questions outweighed anything he actually said.

In reality, if the GOP truly wants to chip away at the Democratic Party’s advantage with black voters, focusing on black, conservative institutions makes much more sense than going to more-liberal college campuses.

“I've sat in dozens of high-level meetings where national Republicans say, ‘We need better outreach to minority communities’ followed by a complete nothingburger,” says GOP strategist Rick Wilson. “Rand Paul is actually doing something meaningful. Paul deserves credit for a speech at Howard that wasn't pandering, and wasn't affected ... but reaching out to African-American college students at more culturally conservative institutions in the HBCU domain is smart politics. Thousand miles, single step.”

That’s a strategy the GOP could follow. Although the majority of black voters won’t cast ballots for the Republican Party, winning just 15 percent of the black vote could put major swing states in play.

The GOP can gain some modest ground with religious African-Americans, particularly on social issues such as gay marriage. Support for gay marriage has grown among African-Americans, but it still stands at 38 percent—lower than for whites—according to a March 2013 Pew survey. Still, 34 percent of black evangelical Protestants favor gay marriage, at a higher rate than among their white counterparts.

There are other issues that could gain some hearing among black voters, such as reducing mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, which Paul supports. According to reporters live-tweeting the Simmons event, even though Paul talked once again about black history and the GOP, he also addressed charter schools, Pell Grants, and granting more autonomy to local superintendents. He even ended with a prayer.

"He’s definitely going to continue this conversation – and looks forward to visiting other HBCUs," says Paul's communications director, Moira Bagley. 

A speech at a small, conservative school back home in Kentucky won’t get the same kind of national coverage that a major speech at well-known Howard University will. But more appearances like the one at Simmons will make a much bigger impact for the GOP's minority-outreach efforts.