WASHINGTON — Conservatives gathered at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to the Majority" conference on Friday to try and understand just how exactly the GOP can win.
The message: conservative social issues are winners and candidates need to talk about them a whole lot more — and that runs counter to a lot of the soul-searching Republicans have done since the 2012 election.
Yes, speakers railed against President Barack Obama, the economy, unemployment, and Obamacare, all the standard themes of the 2012 campaign.
But conservatives here said they felt abandoned by the Republican ticket in 2012 and argued that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan spent too little time talking about anti-abortion policies and entirely avoided talking about marriage.
"You can chew gum and walk down the street at the time," Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, told BuzzFeed. "The strategy for Mitt Romney was to basically be single issue and it didn't work, it didn't work because the other side was reading different talking points. They were defining him on women's issues."
The conference comes as the Republican National Committee is trying to rehabilitate the image of the GOP — which lost women and minority voters by large margins — and has veered away from focusing on social issues. To these conservatives, that's exactly the wrong play, and practically every speaker encouraged the audience to continue to fight for social issues and energize the base.
Democrats meanwhile have been working to continue the narrative that Republicans are engaged in a "War on Women," the latest example of which is a bill sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks coming to the floor next week that bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
"I really give credit to the House leadership that the Franks bill is coming up on Tuesday," Nance said. "What we know is when members are willing to go out on that issue and be counted they garner support and new support in their district and they'll be praised for it, it's better for them."
Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, said that Republican strategists were wrong to tell candidates to focus on the economy — and even said that many of the GOP's economic policies, while he agreed with them, weren't best messages to win.
"They tell candidates why don't you go out there and base your campaign on the idea that we need to cut every body's social security cause that's really a popular idea, but stay away from that abortion issue!" Bauer said. "Or they go out there and tell the candidates, now hold the line on no tax increases on the very wealthy because everybody in America gets up and worries about taxes going up on billionaires, but don't get into that controversial issue on the definition of marriage."
"They've got it upside down. The Republican social issues we believe in are more popular than our economic agenda," he said to applause.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's Vice Presidential candidate, offered his own explanation for why Republicans lost in November, charging that he and Romney lost in large part because they had to "argue against the promise and rhetoric of President Obama" and told the audience to "come and speak your values."
"Our job is this, we've got to go fight for the American ideal," Ryan said. "We've got to re-introduce people to these principles, we've got to reintroduce people to the idea that if you work hard in this country you can get ahead."
"We need to hear from you. The left likes to think that we are the fringe. Guess what: You, us, we are the mainstream," he said.
Marjorie Kantor, attending her first conference from Long Branch New Jersey, said that she felt Romney and Ryan shared her values but were weakened by not speaking about them.
"A lot people sit in the background and do have wonderful values but they seem silent," Kantor said. "We've gone backwards since the 70's, and the liberals have taken over. I think it's time we took a stand."
Attendees of the conference on Thursday heard from leading 2016 presidential contenders, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Rubio told the audience to continue speaking out over the issues that matter most to conservatives.
"This call for us to silence ourselves and stop speaking about the values we know work is a big mistake," he said.
Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom coalition, told the Associated Press that national Republican's calls for inclusiveness didn't need to come at the expense of alienating Christian conservatives.
We think you've got to add more young people, more Hispanics, more women, more African-Americans — you've got to grow the movement and grow the party," Reed said. "But you don't do that by taking the most loyal constituents that you've got and throwing them under the bus."