Political Paddock: Rand Paul, Sisyphus and 'win-ability'

syoungman@herald-leader.comJune 9, 2014 

LOUISVILLE — Rand Paul was walking through a narrow hallway to the waiting cars parked outside the back door of the Trinity Life Center, where Paul and other Republicans joined to cut the ribbon on the Jefferson County Republican Party's new West End office.

The senator, continuing his well-known efforts to take the Republican message to minority groups, was in a good mood, having told the audience he was "inspired and frankly excited" about the new GOP presence in Louisville's predominantly black neighborhoods.

"If anyone accuses me of coming to the West End to look for votes, they're right," Paul told the audience. "I'm here to ask for your vote."

But as Paul was leaving, Neal Robertson, a black Democrat, was coming in.

"I'm moving," Robertson said out loud to Paul's passing entourage. "If y'all are coming, I'm leaving."

And thus Saturday in Louisville was a typical day in the increasingly atypical life of a likely presidential candidate who is leading the charge on minority outreach despite coming from a party that often evokes hostility from minority groups.

After his flight arrived later than expected Saturday, Paul hustled to Louisville's Galt House in jeans and cowboy boots to briefly address the Republican Party of Kentucky's state central committee meeting. ("The president's doing everything he can to encourage recruitment for our party," he told them.)

From there, Paul slipped on a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers and left for the office opening, then back to the Galt House to address the statewide Lincoln Day dinner.

Each event brought slight changes in message — the committee meeting included talk of the need for Republican House candidates to come up with a "Contract with America," and the Saturday night address talked about recently released war prisoner Bowe Bergdahl and foreign aid to the Palestinian government — but there was a common refrain at each.

Wherever he went, Paul talked about making the Republican Party "bigger, better and bolder," crystallizing his outreach message to black voters as "economic opportunity, education opportunities, school choice, criminal-justice reforms, sentencing reform, restoration of voting rights."

"What's not to like?" Paul said as he closed his remarks at the new office with a sales pitch. "Think about voting for a Republican."

The problem for Paul, and the GOP as a whole, is that for all their talk and effort, hardly a day passes without national news reports of a Republican who has said something offensive.

Paul's visit to Louisville Saturday came just a few days after Paul joined a conference call with Virginia Tea Party activist Rev. E.W. Jackson. After Paul got off the call, Jackson said, among other things, that President Barack Obama has "Muslim sensibilities."

After the liberal magazine Mother Jones reported on the comments, the Democratic National Committee blasted it out to reporters, adding that "Paul's outstanding ties to far-right Republicans like Jackson and others mirror his own radical record that is out of step with middle-class Americans."

During his ride to the West End, Paul was asked about Jackson, and whether Paul's outreach make him a bit like Sisyphus, the mythological king whose punishment from Zeus was to push a boulder up a hill only to have it repeatedly roll back down to the bottom.

"If I'm Sisyphus, I'm still halfway up the hill," Paul said. "It hasn't come back yet."

And that's as far as Paul is likely to get with Robertson, who said he's upset with those who invited Paul to the community.

"I'm not upset with him; he's only doing what a drug dealer would do: come to a neighborhood where people would allow him to come," Robertson said. "These people allow this man to come here after all the things that he's said."

The senator has shot himself in the foot several times with black voters over the years, and he is realistic about the steep incline of the hill and weight of the boulder he must push, telling the Herald-Leader, "Nothing comes easy in life."

"I think that we're making a great deal of progress with trying to put our message forward," Paul said. "There's at least some evidence."

The senator cited last month's Bluegrass Poll, which showed him winning 29 percent of the black vote in Kentucky in a hypothetical 2016 matchup against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"If that's accurate, that would be historic," Paul said.

It might seem that some in his party are working against him as he woos a thoroughly skeptical minority group, but Paul said that there aren't "any Republicans coming up to me and saying 'Oh, that's crazy for you to try to find new people and invite them into the party.'"

"They realize we need to do it, but it just takes someone who decides that it's time to do it," Paul said. "It really should've been done 20 years ago or 30 years ago."

To lead the party in 2016, Paul said, a Republican candidate must prove that he can win the White House, which means the GOP needs to grow.

"It is about winning, and it's about win-ability," Paul said. "But I think there's an intersection between policy and win-ability, particularly when the policy that some of us are talking about actually is one that has an element to it that does reach out to new voters."

On Saturday night, the crowd in the Galt House's Grand Ballroom erupted when Agriculture Commissioner James Comer introduced Paul as "the next president of the United States."

Paul joked that Comer's remark "might be a little premature," but he continues to consider making a bid, and his heavy summer travel schedule to early-voting states has drawn national media attention.

But for there to be a presidential bid, there has to be a path to victory, Paul said, and that path can be paved only by new voters who have, for the most part, looked at Paul and his party just as Robertson does.

"I won't get in unless I think I can win," Paul said. "But that will be part of the decision-making process when the time comes."

Political Paddock includes Sam Youngman's observations from the campaign trail. Sam Youngman: (502) 875-3793. Email: syoungman@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @samyoungman. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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