Cliven Bundy's racist comments: campaign gift to Democrats?

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy's suggestion that blacks were better off as slaves sets back the GOP's efforts to improve its image among minorities. Some top Republicans had backed Bundy in his land dispute.

John Locher/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP
Rancher Cliven Bundy (c.) walks off stage after speaking at a news conference near Bunkerville, Nev., Thursday, April 24, 2014.

Rebellious Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, on the hot seat for suggesting blacks would be better off as slaves, has handed Democrats a gift right as midterm campaigns are gearing up.

Some Republicans had embraced Mr. Bundy’s longstanding refusal to pay federal grazing fees, but this week the rancher veered off into racist commentary – and now his GOP supporters are distancing themselves from him. Democrats are more than happy to fan the controversy, slamming some Republicans for not instantly denouncing Bundy’s race talk.

In an e-mail Friday with the subject line, “That time Republicans defended a racist,” the Democratic National Committee compared the Bundy flap to “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson’s insensitive comments about African Americans and gays last December. Some high-profile Republicans defended Mr. Robertson.

On his radio show Thursday, conservative talker Sean Hannity expressed concern that Democrats would associate Republicans with Bundy’s remarks. He pointed to comments April 13 by Rep. Steve Israel (D) of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who said on CNN: "To a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism. That's unfortunate."

The Bundy episode represents the latest setback to establishment Republicans seeking to improve their party’s image on matters of race and ethnicity. The nation’s growing diversity – and declining percentage of white voters – threatens the party’s viability in the long run, especially in presidential elections.

On CNN Friday, conservative African American blogger Crystal Wright said Republicans shouldn’t have embraced Bundy on the issue of federal grazing fees “without doing their homework first” on his racial views. She also criticized the way the party conducts outreach to minorities.

“Stop looking at us like we’re some weird animal,” said Ms. Wright, publisher of the blog

The Bundy situation has been building up for more than two decades. The federal government, backed by court rulings, says Bundy’s cattle have been grazing on government land improperly since 1993, and this month prepared to confiscate his herd. Bundy and his supporters, some of them armed, became a national cause célèbre via extensive coverage on Fox News, particularly on Mr. Hannity’s show. Politicians soon squared off on the issue: Republicans like libertarian Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada supported Bundy’s claim of federal overreach. Nevada’s other senator, Democratic majority leader Harry Reid, called Bundy supporters “domestic terrorists.”

The standoff took a turn Wednesday night, when The New York Times posted an article quoting Bundy suggesting that “the Negro” would be “better off as slaves.” The full comments can be read here.

The Washington Post obtained a video of the remarks, made last Saturday, from a Bundy supporter.

Hannity and other high-profile Bundy supporters denounced his rhetoric.

“His comments are beyond repugnant to me,” Hannity said. “They are beyond despicable to me. They are beyond ignorant to me."

Still, Hannity said he continues to disagree with how the federal government is handling the Bundy land dispute.

Senator Paul called Bundy’s remarks on race “offensive and I wholeheartedly disagree with them.” A spokesperson for Senator Heller said he “disagrees with Mr. Bundy’s appalling and racist statements, and condemns them in the most strenuous way.”

On Friday morning, Mr. Bundy doubled down on the racist talk, in comments to CNN:

“If I say Negro or black boy or slave, if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be [offended], then Martin Luther King hasn't got his job done yet," he said, adding, "We need to get over this prejudice stuff."

The night before, also on CNN, Bundy defended himself on his racial commentary.  

"I don't think I'm wrong," he said. "I think I'm right."

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