Rand Paul causes Civil Rights Act controversy with desegregation remarks

Controversial comments made by Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul (R) resulted in a flurry of e-mails from Democrats bashing the Tea Party favorite and had Republicans tight-lipped on their nominee.

And observers said it showed the eye doctor’s political inexperience.

Paul, the son of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), appeared on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” Wednesday night and was asked about his stance on desegregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Republican nominee said he opposes racial discrimination but questioned the federal government’s authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws on private businesses.

“Well, what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says, ‘Well, no, we don’t want to have guns in here,’ the bar says, ‘We don’t want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other’?” he said. “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?”

Paul later issued a statement saying he does not support repealing the Civil Rights Act.

“Even though this matter was settled when I was 2, and no serious people are seeking to revisit it except to score cheap political points, I unequivocally state that I will not support any efforts to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he said.

In an appearance on the conservative Laura Ingraham radio show Thursday, Paul said his comments came as a result of being on Maddow’s show, which is considered liberal.

“It was a poor political decision and probably won’t be happening anytime in the near future,” he told Ingraham.

Democrats pounced on Paul’s comments Thursday, using them to argue that Paul is too far right politically and outside the mainstream to serve in the Senate.

The Democratic National Committee sent out nearly 30 e-mails to the media bashing Paul and used his comments to take shots at the Tea Party movement, which supported Paul’s primary bid over that of Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the GOP establishment favorite.

“No matter how he tries to spin to the contrary, the fact is that Paul’s ideology has dangerous consequences for working families, veterans, students, the disabled and those without a voice in the halls of power,” his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, said in a statement. “He is focused on the Tea Party whereas I am running to be a senator for all the people of Kentucky, who are really hurting right now.”

Republicans in Washington, meanwhile, were reluctant to come to Paul’s defense, despite the fact he could boost their ranks.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of Paul’s earliest backers, told the liberal blog Think Progress he is going “to talk to Rand about his positions,” adding that he himself supports the Civil Rights Act.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who backed Grayson over Paul in the primary, released a statement saying that he supports the Civil Rights Act and was pleased with Paul’s clarification.

“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,” spokesman Don Stewart said in a statement. “He has always considered the law a monumental achievement for the country and is glad to hear Dr. Paul supports it as well.”

During a campaign debate Paul said, if elected, he may not vote for McConnell for minority leader.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said that Paul should have the opportunity to answer the question.

“I think it’s the day after he was nominated and all candidates have questions to answer and he’ll have to answer his own questions,” Alexander told reporters at the Capitol. “I am not going to start taking stands on all Senate races around the country. I supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Even though Alexander would not comment on Paul’s remarks, he said he thinks “Rand Paul would be an excellent candidate for the United States Senate and [I] hope he gets elected.”

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was more tight-lipped than his colleagues, saying “I haven’t heard what he said and I don’t want to let you paraphrase it.”

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that Paul’s comments underline his political inexperience.

“Oh, absolutely. I think one, it’s his political inexperience and two, you know, this isn’t necessarily different than the things Rand Paul talks about and aren’t getting noticed.”

Duffy pointed to outside-the-mainstream comments Paul made that were highlighted by Grayson’s campaign but did not stick with voters, such as advocating term limits but refusing to sign a pledge, and saying he wants to send Guantánamo Bay detainees back to their home countries.

She also said that his decision to hold his victory party Tuesday at a members-only country club was another example of his inexperience.

She expects that Democrats will look to push Paul’s comments and actions to drive home their argument that he is extreme.

“One of the things Democrats understand about this race is that Paul came into it as a relatively unknown entity,” she said. “Their job is to define him and to do it quickly, and he’s provided them some help in the last 24 hours.”

Duffy said there is too much time remaining before the election to say how it will affect Paul’s candidacy, but did say, “I wouldn’t be surprised if around the general … you see this resurface in mail to minorities.”

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who is African-American and grew up in the segregationist South, said on MSNBC Thursday that he was “absolutely appalled” by Paul’s comments and called on him to “come clean with the American people and let us know exactly what he intends to do.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at his press briefing Thursday that Paul’s comments have no place in the political dialogue. 

Gibbs said that he had not seen the entire interview, but that it is another telling sign the GOP is narrowing its party to the extreme.

Michael O’Brien, Eric Zimmermann and Sam Youngman contributed to this story.