Rand Paul, soon before announcing his run for president last month, stood before an audience at historically black Bowie State University and echoed Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 message that there are “two Americas.”
That phrase about the nation’s haves and have-nots was also employed a decade ago by liberal Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, as he courted black voters for his own run for president. But this spring the rhetoric came from a self-described constitutional conservative, a Republican senator from Kentucky who’s hoping to attract one of the most liberal voting blocs in the nation, African-Americans – only 5 percent of whom identified themselves as Republicans in a 2012 Gallup poll.
Reaching out to black voters is a core part of Paul’s strategy to become a front-runner in a crowded Republican presidential field by building a broad coalition beyond traditional party lines. But national polling shows he’s struggling to win black support, and he’s about to get a rival in the effort, Ben Carson, who’ll announce his own Republican presidential campaign Monday in Detroit.
The latest national Quinnipiac University poll suggests Paul would gain just 3 percent of the black vote in a potential head-to-head matchup in the general election with Democrat Hillary Clinton. A Bluegrass Poll in Paul’s home state last year, though, gave Paul reason for hope, with 29 percent of black voters surveyed in Kentucky saying they’d vote for Paul over Clinton .
Elroy Sailor, Paul’s senior adviser and strategic planning director, said in an interview that it could be crucial if Paul could pick up just a small percentage of the black vote in a primary state such as Michigan.
“In such a crowded primary field of candidates, a couple of points could be the difference,” Sailor said.
He’ll be competing against a Republican field that includes Carson, who’s African-American, grew up in poverty and became a renowned neurosurgeon, now retired. The 2016 Committee, a “super PAC” supporting Carson, plans to target the black vote specifically.
“I absolutely applaud Rand Paul for reaching out to the black community, but I think in this case, up against Dr. Carson, Dr. Carson has that vote hands down,” said John Philip Sousa IV, chairman of the super PAC.
They’ll work against each other especially hard for black voters in states such as Michigan and South Carolina where people don’t have to be registered Republican to vote in the party’s primary election.
Such states will be a special target for Carson’s super PAC, Sousa said. South Carolina is crucial as an early primary state that can help make or break a campaign for the Republican nomination.
South Carolina Republican consultant David Woodard, though, said he didn’t think Paul or Carson would succeed in attracting many black votes.
“African-American voters in South Carolina vote Democratic,” Woodard said. “They are just an infinitesimally small turnout in a Republican primary.”
That’s a problem across the country for Republicans, despite Paul’s suggestion last year that a third of the African-American vote is open to the Republican message.
Republican presidential nominees have won 4 to 12 percent of the black vote in the past 20 years, according to exit polls compiled by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut.
The Republican Party, in a blistering postmortem of the 2012 presidential election, conceded it has to do a better job of attracting minority voters in order to be viable.
Paul has so far made the only major effort among Republican presidential candidates to attract black votes. The past two years he’s spoken at black colleges, met with NAACP leaders, called for police demilitarization, criticized the criminal justice system as biased and visited Ferguson, Mo., the scene of racial unrest after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager last summer.
Paul has also stumbled. At Howard University he had to defend 2010 statements in which he’d questioned whether the Civil Rights Act should ban discrimination by private businesses (Paul told the Howard students he’s “never wavered” in supporting the 1964 act.)
This week when speaking with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham about the turmoil in Baltimore prompted by the death of a black man in police custody, Paul said he’d come through Baltimore the previous night and was “glad the train didn’t stop.” He also suggested the cause of the unrest was a lack of fathers and lack of a moral code.
Some of Paul’s black advisers, a team that includes former Oklahoma Republican U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts and Sailor, CEO of the lobbying firm J.C. Watts Companies, spoke to the senator about the radio show Wednesday after the remarks drew fire .
“You can always look in the rearview mirror and say, ‘Could I have done something this way or could I have done something that way,’ ” Sailor said.
Paul has said that for Republicans to win, the party needs to look like America. “White, black, brown, rich, poor, with tattoos and without tattoos, with earrings and without earrings,” he said in February. “We need to take our message where it’s not been taken before.”
His outreach has won praise, even beyond those who’ve seen him in person. Travonn Bond, an African-American senior at Bowie State University in Maryland, said word had spread about Paul’s talk at the college, and Bond said he’d consider voting for the senator.
“From the feedback that I heard, it was pretty good. It was pretty positive,” Bond said.
Paul spokesman Sergio Gor said Paul had been “actively engaging” African-Americans since he’d been elected to the Senate in 2010. He said Paul had introduced criminal justice bills, such as revamping the juvenile justice system and limiting mandatory sentencing. While the senator has struggled with getting such bills to move, few pieces of legislation make it through the current gridlock of Congress.
“Showing up in locations such as Detroit, Chicago and Ferguson has worked for Sen. Rand Paul because he brings a message of reform through his proposed legislation,” Gor said. “Mandatory minimums, economic freedom zones and dozens of other ideas resonate especially well in these communities.”
Andra Gillespie, an expert in African-American politics at Emory University in Atlanta, said she didn’t think any Republican would get much more than 10 percent of the black vote in this presidential race. Gillespie said Paul needed to see his effort as a long game.
“I acknowledge what the Republican Party has tried to do. I acknowledge what Sen. Paul has tried to do. But it isn’t going to turn itself around in a couple of years,” she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version gave the wrong month for when Paul announced his candidacy. It was April.