Republican Underground Emerges From The Shadows

A Planned Parenthood supporters participates in a rally near the Republican National Convention in Tampa on August 29, 2012.
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They are few, but they are vocal: the pro-same-sex marriage, pro-choice, pro-tax Republican activists. For years, these groups have labored off the radar, trying to convince a party unwilling to listen that it needs to moderate on issues from social to fiscal. But after the Democrats’ decisive victories on Nov. 6, the Republican Underground says its finally time to go mainstream.

In the days since the election, TPM has talked with what one could call fringe Republican activists from across the issue spectrum. Like most in the GOP since the election returns that “shellshocked” the top of the ticket came in, they’re eager to see the Republican Party become more appealing to the national electorate. Unlike many Republican leaders, however, these activists say they actually know how to make the substantive changes to make that happen.

Republicans everywhere talk about a change in tone — rejecting divisive language like Mitt Romney’s post-election “gifts” comment has become the national pastime for the GOP in recent days. But even the most vocal Romney critics in the Republican mainstream have repeatedly said the party doesn’t need to change substantively. It just needs a new sales pitch.

The only real policy shift to come out of the election so far is a return to support for comprehensive immigration reform that was a central plank of many Republican campaign platforms in the cycles before 2012. On other issues, there are plenty of Republican leaders who say the GOP can hold the conservative line and still win.

The Republican Underground has a different theory. They’ve called for the party to get with what they see as the program on issues like gay marriage and women’s health for years. But they’ve largely been talking to themselves. Now, they say Republicans are coming to them and they’re cautiously optimistic that could mean real changes for the party down the road.

• Abortion

“What happened on [Election Day] is essentially what we have been warning the party about for the last four years,” said Kellie Rose Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for Choice, a group that supports abortion rights. The group called out its fellow Republicans in the days following the election for alienating women with its language about abortion.

“[GOP leaders] look at the polls that show that the country is essentially split on the labels, but they lack an understanding of what the issue of choice means,” she said. “It’s not just abortion and what you would do personally. There’s a political side of it.”

Making the Republican Party into a pro-abortion rights party is a tough sell, but Rose Ferguson said Republicans are suddenly a lot more open to hearing what her group has to say. The group intends to take advantage of the situation and “talk to the myriad of donors and voters outside of the party that realize we collectively as a Republican body we need to do something.”

• Same-Sex Marriage

Conservative LGBT group GOProud is perhaps best known from the 2012 cycle for its tussles with the Log Cabin Republicans, the more mainstream LGBT rights advocates inside the GOP. But with a clear line drawn between Democrats and Republicans on same sex marriage this election, GOProud says its time for all LGBT activists in the GOP to work together toward the goal of getting the party in line with national polling showing public support for expanded LGBT rights on the rise.

Like the pro-choice Republicans, GOProud says its phones have been ringing off the hook since the election with Republicans asking for advice. The group suggests Republicans adopt a “federalist” stance to same-sex marriage, advising future presidential candidates to support the rights of states to make their own decisions about marriage, rather than signing “NOM’s crazy pledge” calling for a federal ban on LGBT marriage rights.

“There’s two types of people right now in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement,” said Chris Barron, a co-founder of GOProud. “There are the Holocaust Deniers, the folks who don’t think that there’s anything structurally wrong…and then there are people who understand that what we’re facing is what some people have been warning about for a decade now, which is a demographic tsunami.”

• Moderates

Moderate Republicans — or “former elected officials” as they’re often known today — have suffered great losses in recent years after conservatives voted them out in primaries or Democrats defeated them by painting them with conservative policies of the modern Republican mainstream. After seeing conservative stances drag down Romney and lose the GOP a chance at the Senate, one of the moderates leaving Congress this year says his type of Republican is ready to fight back.

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-OH) announced he wouldn’t run for a another term in Congress back in July. But he gained national fame in the past couple of weeks as he smacked down tea party claims that Romney lost because he wasn’t conservative enough. In his new job heading up the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership advocacy group, LaTourette says donors have been beating a path to his door hoping to prevent the moderate GOP from being primaried into oblivion. LaTourette says the answer is a super PAC, and he hopes to get one off the ground soon.

“The goal would be that if attacked, we’re going to defend,” he said.

“One of the things that drives me crazy is all these new faces. Most of the guys from the South used to be Democrats. And all of a sudden they try to hop on the Republican Party,” he said. “Well, I’ve been a Republican all my life. And to say that I’m not a good Republican? That’s nonsense. Those are the people that we’re going to defend.”

Moderates may have several super PACs to rely on for cover in the next round of primaries. Romney’s Hispanic outreach director and one of the men behind his super PAC — which ran ads attacking candidates for being too soft on immigration — say they’re planning a new group to support pro-immigration reform Republicans.

• Women’s Health

As part of the party’s swing to the right, Republicans have taken a hardline against Planned Parenthood. The defenders of the organization at the edges of the GOP say they’re getting new attention from the mainstream after Democrats succeeded with their “war on women” messaging, which centered around the attacks on Planned Parenthood.

“A clear message was sent,” said Randy Moody, a co-founder of Republicans for Planned Parenthood. He noted that a committee in the Ohio legislature is trying to get state Planned Parenthood funding eliminated during its post-election lame duck session, a sign that not everyone in the GOP paid close attention to Nov. 6. “You have to wonder what they’re thinking,” he said.

His group is taking advantage of the electoral results and dispatching lobbyists to warn Republicans of the consequences that could come with another fight over Planned Parenthood funding. The election proves it’s a risky battle Republicans will probably lose, Moody said, and it’s time Republicans embrace Planned Parenthood supporters once again. “We’re going to reach out to the RNC to get a seat at the table,” he said.

• Taxes

There have been Republican voices calling on the party to drop its fundamental opposition to tax increases for years. But only now, after President Obama won an election where he called for new taxes at nearly every campaign stop, are those voices starting to be heard. Even though it might be the most sacrilegious policy shift the Republican party could take, there are signs a shift away from 100% opposition to tax hikes in any circumstance is starting to take hold.

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