FRANKFORT — Fresh from Tuesday's victory to become the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in November's general election, Rand Paul got hammered Thursday as political observers parsed statements he made in the national media about anti-discrimination laws.
The Bowling Green eye surgeon and Tea Party movement favorite had to hustle to try to quell the firestorm of criticism that greeted comments he made on MSNBC and National Public Radio on Wednesday.
Similar views from Paul had surfaced first in the Courier-Journal on April 25, when the newspaper's editorial board wrote following an interview with him that Paul "holds an unacceptable view of civil rights, saying that while the federal government can enforce integration of government jobs and facilities, private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve black people, or gays, or any other minority group."
While those statements received little attention, there was a different result when Paul reiterated on NPR and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show that anti-discrimination laws should only apply to public institutions.
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The 1964 Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in public and private places.
Though several political analysts view the fall race in Kentucky between Paul and Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway as a toss-up, they say if such statements from Paul become a trend, his campaign, already in the spotlight because of his Tea Party affiliation, could face a backlash.
In response to widespread criticism about his comments, Paul released a statement saying he abhors racism, supports the 1964 Civil Rights Act and blames the liberal media for the uproar.
"I have clearly stated in prior interviews that I abhor racial discrimination and would have worked to end segregation," Paul said.
But Conway said Paul is "promoting a narrow and rigid ideology and has repeatedly rejected a fundamental provision of the Civil Rights Act."
"No matter how he tries to spin to the contrary, the fact is that Paul's ideology has dangerous consequences," Conway said.
Paul said no one is serious about suggesting the Civil Rights Act be revisited "except to score cheap political points."
He said a statement by Conway on MSNBC Wednesday that Paul favored repeal of the Civil Rights Act was "irresponsible and knowingly false.
"I hope he will correct the record and retract his claims."
"I didn't start this," Conway said during a phone interview, adding that he was not backing away from his comments.
The attacks against him, Paul said, "prove one thing for certain: the liberal establishment is desperate to keep leaders like me out of office, and we are sure to hear more wild, dishonest smears during this campaign."
Criticism from Democrats
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, said in a statement that he found Paul's comments "simply appalling," and called on Sen. Mitch McConnell and others in the Kentucky Congressional delegation "to join me in condemning his despicable views."
Paul "has no place holding public office in Kentucky in the 21st century," Yarmuth said. "Rand Paul has already embarrassed Kentuckians in the eyes of the world. The commonwealth deserves better."
McConnell, the U.S. Senate Republican Leader from Louisville who supported Paul's opponent, Trey Grayson, in the Republican primary, issued a statement that focused mostly on his own view of the Civil Rights Act.
"Among Sen. McConnell's most vivid memories and most formative events in his career was watching his boss Sen. John Sherman Cooper help pull together the votes to break the filibuster and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964," the statement said.
"He has always considered the law a monumental achievement for the country and is glad to hear Dr. Paul supports it as well."
Paul's quick defense of his views did not stop a barrage of criticism from Democrats.
The Democratic National Committee sent out e-mails highlighting Paul's comments on the TV show.
South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Carol Fowler demanded answers from her state's U.S. senator, Jim DeMint, about his views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act because he endorsed Paul in the primary election.
"Mr. DeMint and his friends talk a lot about freedom. Apparently Mr. Paul wants to be free to go back to the days when nearly a third of South Carolinians couldn't eat in public restaurants," she said in a statement.
DeMint told ThinkProgress, a political blog, that he supports the Civil Rights Act and will "talk to Rand about his positions."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said in a statement that he hopes "that neither Rand Paul, nor any individual who shares his views, is ever able to serve in public office at any level."
Asked whether Paul is fit to hold public office, U.S. Senate Democratic nominee Conway said, "The Republican Party has to answer that question.
"I'm going to run against him, and I'm going to point out that he holds a really narrow and rigid philosophy that gets him into trouble on issues where government has played an important role, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Local, not federal
Paul was asked during an interview with Robert Siegel on NPR Wednesday whether he thought some federal regulations concerning disabilities were overreaching.
"I think a lot of things could be handled locally," Paul said. "For example, I think that we should try to do everything we can to allow for people with disabilities and handicaps. I think if you have a two-story office and you hire someone who's handicapped, it might be reasonable to let him have an office on the first floor rather than the government saying you have to have a $100,000 elevator."
On the MSNBC show, Maddow asked: "Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?"
Paul replied with an analogy to free speech: "Yes. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. ... Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way, in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things that freedom requires ... that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it."
Paul also has been criticized by Democrats for holding his victory party celebration Tuesday night at the Bowling Green Country Club.
Dave Fenwick, manager of the country club, said Thursday that the club has minority members, but he declined to say how many.
"We are very, very open," Fenwick said. "We're not your grandfather's country club. We're more blue-collar than blue-blood."
Fenwick also said Paul is a member of the club. "I can tell you he definitely is not a racist."