Art Gisi likes to joke that he and Cathie Lynn Profant, a co-leader of the Grass Roots Tea Party of Nevada, are "so conservative we make most tea partyers look like left-wing liberals."
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Gisi and Profant are leading a campaign to shift conservative Republicans away from fighting abortion and battling illegal immigrants on every front.
A woman’s right to choose abortion is the law of the land and should be accepted, they said Tuesday at the group’s first post-election meeting following a year in which Republicans were accused of waging a "war on women."
The tea party leaders also proposed pushing for a new Nevada law to let undocumented immigrants get "driver privilege cards" so they can legally hit the roads and buy auto insurance.
The idea, modeled on a program in Utah, is to make Nevada roads safer and perhaps lower insurance premiums for all drivers. But the impetus is a post-November realization that Republicans have lately been on the losing side of immigration, costing them the decisive Latino vote and the White House.
"Nevada’s changing and we as Republicans are going to need to step up or we’re not going to win any more elections," Profant said. "By staying back here, the rest of the country is leaving us."
The eye-opening changes are a nod to a society and an electorate – in Nevada and nationwide – that has become more diverse, more tolerant and more Democratic as minority populations have grown.
In the Silver State, 26 percent of the population is Hispanic. About 19 percent of Nevada voters were Latino this year.
President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in Nevada compared to 24 percent for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, according to a New York Times exit poll. As for women, Obama won 57 percent of the female vote compared to 41 percent for Romney, a 16-point gap.
Romney won independents, men and whites, but it wasn’t enough here or nationwide to overcome Obama.
After the president’s re-election, the Republican Party in Nevada and across the country has undertaken a deep examination of why the GOP lost and how it can alter its political strategy and policy stances to win future elections.
Gisi said tea party groups need to back moderate candidates who share their conservative fiscal views, including for limited government and spending.
He said it’s time to stop focusing on abortion and other social issues, which allow Democrats to paint Republicans as anti-women.
And on immigration, Gisi and Profant said it’s time to listen to the Latino community to determine its needs instead of resisting change in an ever-changing world.
"That’s why we’re having this discussion," Gisi said Tuesday night at a meeting attended by 16 core members of the tea party group. "We keep getting beat up. We have to shift our positions. We have to change."
Those are the lessons some tea party troops learned after supporting Republican Danny Tarkanian’s losing House campaign this year against state Sen. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, and Sharron Angle’s failed bid in 2010 to unseat U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who credits the Hispanic vote with saving his job.
"It’s time to face up to a few things," said Profant, who worked on Tarkanian’s and Angle’s campaigns. "This may be a bitter pill for our group to swallow, but there are things we can do and things we cannot do. And there’s a right way and a wrong way. And we’ve been addressing things the wrong way."
LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
Members of the tea party movement who attended the meeting at Ricardo’s Mexican Restaurant were generally receptive to their leaders’ message, with some initial reluctance.
"Once we start to cave in on things like this we lose," said Shawn Dorisian, who worried that illegal immigrants would use driver privilege cards as identification to get jobs or vote, although that would be illegal.
Profant interrupted Dorisian, asking for an open mind: "Shawn, hear us out."
The tea party leaders said they still believe in strict border security to prevent illegal immigrants from flooding into the United States, but they said Republicans can’t ignore the estimated 12 million in the country already.
"We need to do something to make an overture to those folks," Gisi said of the Hispanic and immigrant community. "We’re always talking to them instead of listening to them."
Although illegal immigrants can’t vote, 67 percent of Hispanics who are U.S. citizen voters in Nevada said they know someone who is undocumented, according to a Latino Decisions poll taken this year.
Elsa Barnhill, who was the Nevada Hispanic outreach director for the Republican National Committee in 2012, was born in Mexico and grew up in Las Vegas. She said Republicans "get a bad rap" in the Hispanic community, and renewed attention to comprehensive immigration reform could help the GOP.
"I think it’s a good thing that we’re looking for solutions for everybody," Barnhill said. "But it’s going to take a lot more than one election cycle to improve things for the Republican Party."
Indeed, Hispanic activists are skeptical of GOP plans for immigration reform, including proposals to let undocumented youth legally work and study in the United States. So far, Republican plans fall short of the DREAM Act, which would also provide a path to U.S. citizenship for young immigrants.
Astrid Silva, a Las Vegas activist, said she wasn’t surprised to learn the tea party conservatives were doing some soul searching after "being so close-minded to everything" since the movement began in 2009.
"It’s sort of them waking up and realizing our country is changing and becoming more inclusive of everybody," Silva said. "I think this was bound to happen. Conservative people are starting to choose their battles."
Silva has applied for a work permit, which the Obama administration offered this year for her and other so-called DREAMers. But her goal is to become an American citizen, something she thinks the GOP wants to prevent.
"They don’t want us to vote," Silva said of Republicans who oppose citizenship for DREAMers. "Basically, they’re afraid we’re all going to become Democrats. It’s like they’re saying if we can’t have them, neither can they."
Silva said Hispanics generally support the idea of a Nevada driver privilege card for illegal immigrants, who sometimes drive without licenses or insurance out of necessity. Silva, 24, said she plans to get a license, which would be allowed if she can use her work permit as an ID.
State Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said he plans to introduce a bill that would allow driving privileges for undocumented people, but not necessarily licenses. His backing of a driver privilege card could ensure passage, because Democrats control the state Senate and the Assembly.
Denis said he sees the proposed law as making Nevada’s highways safer.
"I’m looking at it from a different standpoint," said Denis, whose District 2 encompasses Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, where the majority of the state’s undocumented reside. "This is a safety issue, not an immigration issue. Let the federal government deal with the immigration issue. This is about safer roads in our state. Why not allow them to take the driving test and prove that they understand the law and know how to drive? I think it would be a great law for everybody involved."
While immigration remains the subject of intense debate, the issue of abortion has been essentially settled for decades. In Nevada, voters approved a ballot question in 1990 that essentially codified into state law a woman’s right to have an abortion as determined in the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision.
At last week’s meeting, tea party Republicans seemed relieved at the thought of dumping abortion as an election issue.
"As candidates we need to stay away from abortion," said Victoria Seaman, who lost a GOP primary in an Assembly race this year. "This is settled law. I’m against abortion, but this is my personal view."
Phil Regeski, another Republican who lost an Assembly race in November, said his 23-year-old daughter came to him two days after the election and said, "Republicans aren’t going to get votes until they stop telling people what to do."
She was talking about women’s rights, including to choose abortion, Regeski said.
"She said, ‘Republicans want women who have been raped to have babies.’ I said, ‘That’s not true.’ "
But two Republican U.S. Senate candidates, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Murdock of Indiana, lost in November after awkwardly commenting about rape victims and abortion. Strict conservatives oppose abortion, with no exceptions for rape and incest.
In Nevada, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., kept his Senate seat, although he opposed federal funding for Planned Parenthood, an issue his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, played up to little effect.
Elisa Cafferata, president and CEO of Nevada Advocates for Planned Parenthood, said she is encouraged to hear conservative Republicans talking about changing policy on abortion and not just changing their rhetoric. She noted that under current law no federal funds pay for abortions via Planned Parenthood.
"You can’t just find the right words to talk about extreme policies and think you’re going to be OK," said Cafferata, who is a Republican. "I think there has been this fundamental shift in the attitudes in America."
About two-thirds of Nevadans believe abortion should be legal, according to a post-election exit poll in 2012 and according to the vote on the 1990 abortion ballot question, which passed with 63.5 percent support.
Among prominent Nevadans who oppose abortion are Cafferata’s grandmother, former U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev., and her mother, former Nevada Treasurer Patty Cafferata.
On the other side is Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican who is pro-choice, although he has said he opposes partial-birth abortion, late-term abortion and federal funding for abortion.
Review-Journal reporter Tom Ragan contributed to this story. Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.