Former Rand Paul Aide Accepts Challenge of Boosting GOP's Black Outreach

Is libertarianism the future of Republican messaging to African-American voters?

Republican National Committee spokesman Orlando Watson, left, poses in January 2013 with his former boss, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
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Orlando Watson, a former aide to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is starting a new job as the Republican National Committee's communications director for black media.

It's unclear if this is a step by the Republican Party's central organ toward emulating the Paul family's somewhat successful outreach to African-American voters, but it might be.

Following in the footsteps of his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the Kentucky senator is gearing up for a presidential bid and is moving past previous controversies by courting black voters with denunciations of drug prohibition, in addition to promoting education reform and free market economic policies.

Watson worked on Paul's 2010 Senate campaign and followed him to Washington as a deputy press secretary. After two years in Paul's Senate office, he was hired in January as communications director for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

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Although he won't directly say that the GOP should head toward the Pauls, Watson chose to emphasize school choice and economic policy – two issue areas often addressed by the Pauls that have broad party appeal – in a statement to U.S. News.

"By having a laser focus on increasing opportunity and then going to bat for adults who want jobs and kids who deserve a quality education, both people and the party can be successful," he said.

Doug Stafford, the chief of staff of Paul's Senate office before his May pivot to the prospective president's Rand PAC, praised Watson as "a great messenger" for the GOP.

Well-crafted Republican messaging to black voters, Stafford says, "is not necessarily a libertarian message, it's more freedom and less government – that crosses libertarian and conservative messages."

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Stafford points to two key areas – "talk about school choice, that's one of the biggest ones" and "just being the party of opportunity and jobs and wanting to create more opportunity for everybody" – as selling points for the broader party.

The elder Paul won Virginia's only majority-black congressional district during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, despite allegedly insensitive articles appearing decades earlier in a newsletter he published.

The likely 2016 presidential candidate is finding similar success among some black voters, despite telling MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in May 2010 he "would have tried to modify" a section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act affecting private businesses.

In April, Sen. Paul spoke at the traditionally black Howard University in Washington, D.C. "We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community," he told students in a speech aimed at wooing black voters. "The history of African-American repression in this country rose from government-sanctioned racism."

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The speech wasn't entirely focused on drug policy, a subject matter that distinguishes the Pauls from many party colleagues. "I come to Howard today, not to preach, or prescribe some special formula for you but to say I want a government that leaves you alone, that encourages you to write the book that becomes your unique future," he said.

Kevin Cosby, the African-American pastor of a large church in Louisville, Ky., told WHAS-TV in September he's glad Paul is reaching out to black voters, and that he's pleased Paul is addressing the impact of tough drug laws. "I applaud the senator for making overtures and attempting to build some bridges, he said. "I agree with him on several important and critical issues that affect the black community."

Still, the Republican Party has historically focused on appealing to black voters' perceived social conservatism. The Pauls themselves are social conservatives, but aren't known for fiery objections to same-sex marriage and abortion.

The social conservative outreach strategy is unlikely to go away. On Monday, the RNC inaugurated its first black outreach office in North Carolina. Accompanying that announcement was a released statement from state RNC committeewoman Ada Fisher, who touted the "pro-family and pro-small business agenda of the Republican Party."