WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Republican Party criticized Senate candidate Rand Paul on Sunday for questioning the landmark Civil Rights Act and said the Kentucky libertarian’s views were out of step with the party and country.
Paul, who won the Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky last week with strong support from the conservative “Tea Party” movement, told MSNBC last week he did not think private businesses should have to abide by civil rights laws.
Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Paul’s criticism of provisions in the 1964 Civil Rights Act arose from the candidate’s libertarian philosophy but “his philosophy is misplaced in these times.”
“I don’t think it’s where the country is right now. The country litigated the issue of separate but equal,” Steele told the “Fox News Sunday” show. “I think in this case Rand Paul’s philosophy got in the way of reality.”
Paul’s comments ignited controversy as Republicans geared up to win back control of Congress in the November elections, when 435 U.S. House of Representatives seats, 36 Senate seats and 37 governorships are up for grabs. Republicans hold the seat Paul is contesting.
After his remarks, Paul issued a statement saying he supported the Civil Rights Act and would not back its repeal.
Asked on ABC’s “This Week” about Paul’s views on the civil rights law, Steele said: “I wasn’t comfortable with it.”
“I am not comfortable with a lot of things, but it doesn’t matter what I’m comfortable with and not comfortable with. I don’t vote in that election. The people of Kentucky will,” he said.
But Steele noted Paul’s later endorsement of the Civil Rights Act and said he believed Paul would back efforts to enforce its measures.
“Rand Paul as United States senator will be four-square with the Republican Party, in lockstep with moving forward on civil rights, not looking backwards,” Steele said on ABC.
Paul also drew fire last week for saying President Barack Obama’s criticism of BP for the Gulf Coast oil spill sounded “un-American” and that “sometimes accidents happen.”
Democratic Party chief Tim Kaine said Paul’s comments would help open the door for the Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, state Attorney General Jack Conway, to succeed retiring Republican Senator Jim Bunning.
Paul, the son of libertarian Representative Ron Paul, canceled a scheduled appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday as he sought refuge from the criticism. But that did not stop everyone else from talking about him.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential candidate, said Paul had been a media victim.
“They’re looking for that ‘gotcha’ moment, and that’s what it evidently appears to be that they did with Rand Paul,” she said on Fox News Sunday. “I’m thankful that he was able to clarify his answer about his support for the Civil Rights Act.”
Republican Senator John Cornyn, who heads the party’s Senate campaign efforts, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Paul’s remarks were a rookie mistake.
“I just think that every time you have a citizen who decides to run for public office, who’s not a professional politician, that occasionally they’re gonna stumble,” he said.
“What I heard him say is he supports the Civil Rights Act, he clarified his views and I think that should be the end of it,” Cornyn said.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Jackie Frank; editing by Paul Simao