If there’s any Republican who needs to tread carefully when it comes to race, it’s Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Between his erstwhile opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his ties to Confederate sympathizers, and the baggage of his father’s past, pundits and observers are primed to pounce on any missteps, like his ill-received speech at Howard University this summer.
But Paul doesn’t seem to know that he’s on shaky ground with racial issues. To wit, earlier this fall, he endorsed Greg Brannon, a Republican primary candidate for Senate in North Carolina. As Molly Redden reports for Mother Jones, Brannon is far outside the mainstream of American politics. He opposes public education, rejects the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction over national law, and has lent his support to a pro-nullification rally held by the League of the South, a self-described “Southern nationalist” organization that is an obvious vehicle for neo-Confederate and white supremacist ideas.
Like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Brannon sees the late Senator Jesse Helms, who represented North Carolina from 1973 to 2003, as a model for legislative behavior. “He was the one I most identified with,” said Brannon during a gathering this summer, “Senator No.” Helms, it should be said, was an unrepentant segregationist who used his power to institutionalize homophobia with attacks on gays and assaults on AIDS funding. To Helms, LGBT Americans were “weak, morally sick wretches,” and AIDS education was “obscene” and “revolting.”
Brannon stands with ugly forces in American life, and is the kind of far-right candidate who ought to be attacked and marginalized by Republican leaders. Like extremist candidates in Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada, his presence in the “tent” of the GOP is certain to alienate the voters who want to shift political gears without giving the car to a maniac. But, with endorsements from Rand Paul—“I support Greg Brannon, and expect him to be North Carolina’s next Senator”—and conservative activists like Red State’s Erick Erickson, there’s a fair chance he’ll make it through the primary and into the general election. And with a high profile comes a greater chance for disaster; given his history, I would be surprised if Brannon didn’t say something on race or gender that embarrassed him and his party.
Conservatives don’t just hate accusations of racism or racial insensitivity (that’s reasonable), they almost always deny that they have any substance, regardless of circumstance. It doesn’t matter that the right-wing indulged “birtherism” and called Obama a “food stamp president” and “Kenyan anti-colonialist”—it’s simply unreasonable to stamp those as racial. Likewise, when asked about his relationships with neo-Confederates and others on the far-right of American politics, Rand Paul has dismissed the questions as nonsense. “I don’t accept all of that and I don’t really need to or spend the time talking about all of that,” he said this summer in an interview with John Harwood of NPR, “If you want to talk about issues and what I stand for, I’m happy to, but I’m not going to really go through an interview reciting or respond to every yahoo in the world who wants to throw up a canard.”
Well, here’s the thing: If Rand Paul wants to avoid these questions, then he should avoid people who sympathize with white supremacists. And the same is true of the GOP writ large; if Republicans want to avoid accusations of prejudice or insensitivity, then the first step is to end the party’s association with lawmakers, officials, and activists who can’t help but indulge their worst instincts. After all, the Republican Party isn’t racist, and it shouldn’t be too hard to filter these people from the pool.