The greatest impact of Rand Paul's anti-civil rights comments may not be on the 2010 elections, but rather on the next several elections.
If that sounds preposterous, then consider the following: Paul was the Tea Party's choice to be the Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky. As Tea Partiers win Republican primaries, the GOP has no choice but to support them against Democrats, thus embracing the Tea Party. First it was Marco Rubio; now it's Paul. In other words, the Tea Party is a wing of the GOP, not a third party.
As voters quit distinguishing between the two, they'll come to associate the GOP with perceptions of the Tea Party. After Paul revisited civil rights, "racist" may be one of the most popular connotations with the GOP.
Not every voter will think the Republican Party is racist. Then again, the GOP probably has these voters and they're not enough to restore the party to governing status. Yes, Republicans will surely achieve net gains in the House and Senate this November built on the strength of middle-aged, elderly, and white voters.
But those aren't the voters the GOP needs for the next several elections. Their share of the electorate will be much smaller once young and minority voters head back to the polls in 2012.
Good luck to anyone who tries to convince these people to call themselves Republicans. Young voters are the least tolerant of any age cohort of racism -- real or perceived -- because they've come of age after much (not all) of America made racial peace. Consider this fact: the last race riots of national impact took place in Los Angeles in 1992 -- when all of today's twenty-something voters were younger than 12. Just imagine how backwards it must it look to them to hear a debate over a civil rights bill passed in 1964.
The Tea Partiers now threaten to "salt the fields around the GOP's reduced territory and make it hard for the party to harvest new voters in the future" because Republicans will be seen as racists by many young and minority voters. I wrote that about the Birthers last year.
If the Republican Party wants to save itself from a generation of inconsequential power, it will have to do more than muzzle its candidates or have a minority in a titular position like RNC chairman. Instead, the GOP will have to win elections with non-white candidates and deny support to anyone who appears at all reactionary on civil rights.
But don't expect that new policy to be adopted by Republican leaders anytime soon. Like all politicians, they won't react to a problem that may affect their chances at reelection several years from now. Today they don't stand to gain anything from forcing a confrontation within the party. But by 2012 or 2016, it may be too late.