Rand Paul: Civil Rights Act brouhaha clouds Senate campaign

Rand Paul, a favorite of the 'tea party' movement, won the Republican nomination for US Senate in Kentucky. But he's become embroiled over the landmark Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial segregation.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul won his party's primary election in Kentucky this week. But he's found himself in a political flap over whether he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
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Kentucky’s Rand Paul, the darling of the conservative “tea party” movement, has started his general election campaign for the Senate with a bang. But not the kind of bang the Republican Party wants.

First, Dr. Paul held his post-primary victory party Tuesday night at a private country club – which didn’t exactly promote the kind of populist, outsider image tea partyers are trying to cultivate. In interviews, he defended the choice by arguing that country clubs and golf aren’t as exclusive as they used to be, citing Tiger Woods as an example.

Now Paul is having trouble giving a straight answer to the question of whether he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation. On MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show" Wednesday night, the host and Paul had this exchange:

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Ms. Maddow: “Should Woolworth’s lunch counter ... have been allowed to stay segregated? Sir, just yes or no.”

Paul: “What I think would happen – what I’m saying is, is that I don’t believe in any discrimination. I don’t believe in any private property should discriminate, either. And I wouldn’t attend, wouldn’t support, wouldn’t go to. But what you have to answer when you answer this point of view, which is an abstract, obscure conversation from 1964 that you want to bring up. But if you want to answer, you have to say then that you decide the rules for all restaurants and then you decide that you want to allow them to carry weapons into restaurants.”

'He needs to come up with an answer'

Thursday morning, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, host and former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough sees the potential for the issue to blow up: ”He needs to come up with an answer today, or Kentucky will be Arizona: a battleground for ugly, racial politics. He has 24 hours.”

Paul, a libertarian – or as he puts it, a “constitutional conservative” – is having a hard time squaring two strains of thought: an objection to government telling private businesses what they may or may not do and the right of government to regulate the practices of private businesses, such as discrimination based on race or allowing customers to carry weapons inside the business.

Paul’s ambivalence toward federal laws mandating the actions of private business – such as disallowing racial discrimination and requiring accommodation for people with disabilities – is nothing new. He suggested as much during the campaign in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board.

But it has come to the fore in interviews since the primary. In addition to the Maddow interview, he spoke with NPR’s “All Things Considered” on Wednesday afternoon and, again, would not say straight up that he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act.

“What I’ve always said is, I’m opposed to institutional racism, and I would have – if I was alive at the time, I think – had the courage to march with Martin Luther King to overturn institutional racism, and I see no place in our society for institutional racism,” he said in response to a first question about the act.

“You would have marched with Martin Luther King but voted with Barry Goldwater?” asked host Robert Siegel.

“I think it’s confusing in a lot of cases in what’s actually in the Civil Rights Case [sic],” Paul replied. “A lot of things that were actually in the bill I’m actually in favor of I’m in favor of – everything with regards to ending institutional racism. So I think there’s a lot to be desired in the Civil Rights – and indeed the truth is, I haven’t read all through it, because it was passed 40 years ago and hadn’t been a real pressing issue on the campaign on whether I’m going to vote for the Civil Rights Act.”

Paul blames the 'loony left'

Paul supporters blame liberal media for going after him – the “loony left,” as Paul refers to critics. On Thursday morning, in an interview with the conservative Laura Ingraham, Paul did not express regret about his comments, but says he regrets appearing on "The Rachel Maddow Show."

“It was a poor political decision and probably won’t be happening anytime in the near future,” he said on Ms. Ingraham’s radio show.

But in a statement Thursday that seemed to acknowledge the political brouhaha he finds himself in, Paul said, “I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Does he support all aspects of the landmark antidiscrimination legislation? That's still unclear.

Related:

Rand Paul rallies Tea Party with Kentucky GOP Senate primary win

Arlen Specter out, Rand Paul advances, Blanche Lincoln fights on

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