Republican strategists hope that Rand Paul's now evolving views on the role of government will have, at worst, a neutral effect on his standing with voters in Kentucky.
To varying degrees, they suggest that Republicans share the basic idea he articulated, even if they abhor racism and would have supported the Civil Rights Act without hesitation. Paul's libertarianism is of the strand that does not account for the persistence of pernicious and damaging beliefs. It does not account for a world that does not, in fact, choose; where individual dignity is embedded in a framework of rights, laws, and (yes) self-government.
And many conservatively oriented white Southerners quietly sanction the principles underlying Paul's beliefs. Through him, they can ventilate their anxieties about government preferences for ethnic minorities who, they believe, no longer require preferences. This is a rational reaction based on both prejudice AND life circumstances, even though it strikes many of us as problematic, and it often overlaps with, or is a fig leaf for, conscious or subconscious racism.
It is simply how things are. Howard Fineman offers a different view of Kentucky, one where white voters are very conscious of being seen as racist. I wonder if voters will tell pollsters that they disagree with Paul's comments because they assume that the poll-takers will judge them negatively if they tell the truth.
Older, whiter people turn out in midterm years. I was impressed with Democratic turnout for the primary, but I really don't know whether it will be sufficient to produce a "swing" vote that would be, or could be, offended by Paul's self-conscious identification with the Tea Party or with extreme libertarianism. Also, Kentucky is not like Georgia or Alabama -- states where African Americans would mobilize against a white politician perceived to be racist. Also, the more the media focuses on Paul, the larger the counter-reaction from his supporters will be.
So -- short term -- there is a case to be made that Rand Paul's comments won't hurt him very much.
Marc Ambinder is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.