A little embarrassing, but not a catastrophe. That seems to be the overall consensus rolling in from Senator Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) speech at Howard University, a historically black university located in Washington D.C. Paul. He received a respectful but tough response from the audience, understandable given the Republican Party's reputation among the African American community and Ran Paul's own controversy regarding past remarks concerning race.
The Paul family has not had the best time when it comes to race. Rand’s father, Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), himself has a history of statements that many saw as racially insensitive. Rand Paul himself stoked controversy regarding remarks about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Rand Paul's speech at Howard University, however, represents an attempt to broaden the Republican electoral brand, even if the first step is a little embarrassing.
The speech itself focused on pre-1964 racial history. Paul gave several standard conservative talking points, reminding the audience that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, Democrats passed Jim Crow laws, and that the founders of the NAACP were republicans. As reported by Talking Points Memo:
"'Would everyone know here they were all Republicans?' he said at one point, referring to the NAACP’s founders.
'Yes!' came the booming response from nearly the entire audience, who appeared offended Paul would even raise the question."
Still, Paul showed political astuteness in bringing up parts of his libertarian ideology that would resonate with the audience. His position that mandatory sentencing for drug crimes should be reduced was popular. When he claimed "I will do everything I can to keep nonviolent criminals out of jail," Paul drew applause from the audience.
The response to Paul's speech was mixed, with some appreciative of his remarks and other grateful that he had made an effort to come out. At one point two audience members interrupted Paul’s speech by holding up a sign that had written upon it "Howard University doesn't support white supremacy" and were quickly escorted out by security. But this was the only major altercation, and for the most part, Paul was treated with respect.
The Republican Party will have an uphill battle when it comes to making inroads into racial minorities, as the party has expressed desire for minority votes in the wake of its crushing loss in 2012. In the 2012 election Romney only received 6% of the African American Vote. Paul, in his 2010 Senate election, were he made his remarks about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, only received 13% of the AA vote.
Still the act of actually coming to speak at Howard University is a huge step for both. George W. Bush declined an invitation to speak at Howard in 2000. The last Republican to speak at the school was former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. At least attempting to explain how the Republican vision of America plays into the lives of ordinary African American men and women is a first, probably embarrassing, step towards attempting to bring them into the fold of the Republican Party.