Rand Paul's Play to Win Over Black Voters at Howard University

Elahe Izadi

The GOP minority outreach efforts continue: This time, it’s Sen. Rand Paul taking the message to a historically black university.

Paul will be delivering a speech at Howard University on Wednesday, where he’ll talk about “the importance of outreach to younger voters, as well as minority groups,” according to his office. He also plans to address school choice and civil liberties.

The Kentucky Republican’s appearance echoes the recommendations made in the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report, detailing why the party lost the 2012 election and urging the party to court minority and young voters. Paul’s positions on foreign policy, Internet freedom, and reforming drug laws appeal to younger voters on college campuses. He also has targeted mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, which disproportionately affects African-Americans.

But Paul makes for an unusual GOP emissary to black voters. His libertarian, small-government bent is a tough sell in the African-American community, which has long viewed federal government intervention as necessary for securing equal rights. Blacks also make up a disproportionate share of the federal workforce.

While running for Senate in 2010, Paul’s comments that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in forcing private businesses not to racially discriminate created a firestorm. He had to scramble to clarify that he supports the Civil Rights Act and is against segregation in public spaces, and by the next day, he seemed to reverse his position on discrimination by private entities.

The choice of venue for Paul’s speech is also notable. Howard University rarely draws prominent Republican speakers to campus: Colin Powell gave Howard’s commencement speech in 1994, and in 1981, then-Vice President Bush received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement speech. But George W. Bush declined the invitation to speak at Howard during his 2000 campaign, and Al Gore spoke instead. The younger Bush’s name was floated to deliver the 2002 commencement speech, which was met with wide protest.

Republicans haven’t completely ignored major black communities or organizations. Mitt Romney spoke to the NAACP convention in 2012—but he was met with boos when he said he wanted to repeal President Obama’s health care law. 

The party’s tactics appear to be shifting after Romney lost the 2012 election while only pulling 6 percent of the black vote. National Republicans are increasingly acknowledging that the party can no longer ignore minority groups if it wants to remain relevant in the future. RNC chairman Reince Priebus met with black leaders in Brooklyn for a “listening session” as part of GOP outreach efforts. The political impetus for Republicans to embrace immigration reform is tied to how badly they lost the Hispanic vote in 2012. Republicans like Jeb Bush have pushed school reform as an issue that could help the GOP make inroads with urban, minority voters.

It appears Paul has gotten the message. He’s already delivered a major speech to an important Hispanic group on immigration reform—even peppering it with some Spanish, for good measure. His plans to address school choice during his Howard speech also underscore an effort to speak on issues that resonate within the black community. That kind of approach, while not likely to win over many African-Americans, could at least make them think twice about the Republican Party. That alone could do wonders for the party’s outreach efforts.