One of the more entertaining, but not unimportant, sideshows around the midterm elections is the effort by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to thread the needle between being disruptive enough to stand out as the Libertarian among an otherwise very ideologically similar group of Republican presidential aspirants, and looking enough like a conservative to be a strong primary candidate. Thus, Mr. Paul has moved toward a more mainstream Republican position on fighting ISIL, while speaking out against heavily armed police in our cities. He continues to advocate for significantly changing our drug laws while also campaigning for fellow Kentuckian and perhaps the most establishment Republican in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Maintaining this balance will become more difficult after the midterm elections when the presidential campaign will become front and center for political pundits and the candidates themselves.
Senator Paul’s recent statement in an interview with Politico about Republican efforts to win more of the African American vote should be understood in this context. “I think there is fully a third of the African American vote that is open to much of the [Republican] message.” At first glance this looks like something Mr. Paul is saying to make himself stand out from other Republicans, who have all but written off the African American, vote and to present himself as a more edgy Republican willing to take risks to win elections.
However, Mr. Paul is hardly the first Republican to claim he can win a substantial part of the African American vote. It is one of those things Republicans say every few years, much the way some Democrats continue to believe white working class men are still part of their base, seemingly to make themselves feel better about their political plight.
While it is probably true that among the major Republican candidates thinking about running for President in 2016, Mr. Paul would be the most attractive to many African American voters, the idea that he could get 30 percent of that vote against Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or any other viable Democratic candidate is a fantasy. Mr. Paul’s claim that the Republicans can win these votes because “a third of them [African Americans] are conservative on a preponderance of the issues,” may in some sense be true but wildly misses a basic point of recent political history.
After more than a generation of largely ignoring African American voters, the Republican Party has become what might generously be called tone deaf on issues involving race. Until that changes and Republican elected officials are not involved in racist incidents, Republican ideologues like Bill O’Reilly no longer flaunt their ignorance of the impact of race on society and economics, and Republican supported economic policies are no longer perceived as damaging to African Americans, 30 percent of the African American vote will not go to the Republican Party.
Clearly not all Republicans are racist, and Mr. Paul in particular has demonstrated an interesting and new Republican perspective on many issues of importance to African Americans, but for that to lead to a significant swing in the African American vote, the Republican Party will have to start sending very different messages about race and racism. That is unlikely to happen in time for the 2016 election.
Lincoln Mitchell is the National Political Correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.