What's behind Rand Paul's blunt talk on race?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul speaks about racial issues both more often and in blunter terms than almost any prominent white Republican politician in the country, building a unique brand for himself that could help in his likely 2016 presidential run but also taking stands that are more controversial than his fellow conservatives.

Other Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), speak regularly about income inequality and tout familiar conservative policies to appeal to black Americans,  such as school vouchers. And Paul is not alone in urging the GOP to expand its base beyond conservative, white voters: the Republican National Committee released an entire report on this issue last year.

But Paul’s approach is unique. He avoids euphemisms often used by GOP politicians like “inner city” or “low-income” to speak in direct terms about blacks, both as a group Paul says his policies will help and a segment of the population he wants to get to vote for Republicans. He has joined in traditionally-Democratic causes, like urging the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons, while at the same time annoying African-Americans with such a self-confidence on racial issues that last year he detailed the history of the Republican Party and race to a group of students at Howard University who then angrily told the senator they knew those facts as well as he does.

“Kids do make mistakes. White kids make mistakes. Black kids make mistakes. Brown kids make mistakes but when you look at the prison population, three out of four people in prison are black or brown. Something’s gone wrong with the war on drugs,” Paul said at a hearing on Wednesday in Kentucky, where he urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would make it easier for convicted felons to get their voting rights back.

Phrases like “black kids” and “white kids” are not used every day by politicians.  For Paul though, this fits in his general pattern of frank comments. At Howard, he told students, “most of the founders of the NAACP were Republicans.”

In an interview last year, Paul downplayed the importance of the Voting Rights Act, arguing, “We have an African-American president.”

On a recent trip to Detroit, the senator unabashedly said he was there to get more black votes for Republicans.

“I’m a politician. I’m a Republican. I want votes,” he said, according to MLive Detroit.   “I think our party needs more votes, and they aren’t getting any out of Detroit.”

Paul is becoming an increasingly influential figure in the intersection between race and politics in America. When Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month said felon disenfranchisement laws lead to large numbers of black men being denied the right to vote, this was important but not surprising, since Holder is a liberal-leaning black man. Paul’s comments in Kentucky were more striking: a conservative senator urging fellow Republicans in his home state to make it easier for convicted criminals to cast ballots again.

Holder and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have had meetings with Paul on ways to reduce the number of people in jail who have committed non-violent drug crimes. Paul has been a key ally in RNC Chairman Reince Preibus’ push for the party to connect more with minorities, attending the opening of one of the Republicans’ new black outreach offices in Detroit.

It’s simply too early to say if these moves hurt or help his broader political prospects if Paul runs for president in 2016 as expected. Fewer than 10 percent of voters in the Republican primaries in most states are black, so Paul’s outreach to African-Americans in 2013 and 2014 will do little to help him win the nomination directly. And it’s not clear if white Republican voters are actually eager to elect a candidate who wants to reduce punishment, both in terms of jail time and voting rights, for people who commit crimes.

And the downside for Paul is talking about race directly, as opposed to safer issues like school vouchers, can lead to all kinds of controversy that potential presidential candidates try to avoid. The Howard students’ sharp questioning of Paul was covered extensively by the press and left the senator frustrated. Civil rights groups don’t view Obama’s victories, as Paul does, as a sign that the Voting Rights Act does not need to be updated.

For now, what Paul has done is turned himself into a singular figure in the GOP: the Republican who can’t stop talking about race.