A more compassionate GOP?

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The Republican Party’s biggest names are seeking ways to broaden out the GOP base, as they seek to learn from their mistakes in the 2012 election.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), the GOP’s vice presidential nominee two years ago, became the latest leading Republican official to venture into areas not known to be friendly to the party, rolling out a broad anti-poverty draft this week. 

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Other top Republicans rumored to be 2016 presidential contenders, such as Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), have made similar efforts in recent months, searching for a more compassionate approach to the poor and also dipping into areas like voter rights and criminal justice reform.

Many Republicans say the party desperately needs to embrace those methods as it seeks to bounce back from Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments in 2012 and a variety of other comments that allowed the GOP to be pilloried as in the corner of the wealthy.

“We don’t do those kind of things, we’re going to morph into a minority party,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “I’ve been in a minority party before. I don’t want to go back.”

But GOP lawmakers also acknowledge that the most conservative reaches of their party might not be attracted to those new tactics, even when they come from a Republican with the stature of Ryan.

No matter what, Republicans have an uphill climb when it comes to convincing voters about their anti-poverty planks. 

Democrats have been seen for generations as more sympathetic to the poor, dating back at least to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, Romney won a solid majority of voters earning more than $50,000 a year, according to exit polls. 

But President Obama won even greater majorities of those making less than that amount, topping out at 63 percent of voters making under $30,000 a year.

Democrats have sought to build on those results this midterm year with a message centered on economic fairness, and have deemed Ryan’s campaign to help the poor as little more than lip service.

But while GOP strategists have already fretted about how the debate over immigration reform could impact the party’s prospects in 2016, many of the House’s most conservative lawmakers reside in deep red districts. 

Because of that, they have found themselves more worried about a primary challenge than broadening the GOP’s national appeal, and softening any rough edges in the party’s message.

For instance, the Club for Growth, a conservative group and frequent sparring partner with GOP leadership, offered a terse no comment when asked about Ryan’s anti-poverty draft. 

And rank-and-file conservatives such as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said they had little interest in trying to put a more compassionate sheen on their conservatism.

“I’m not concerned about winning or losing votes,” Brooks told The Hill on Friday. “I’m concerned about protecting our country from insolvency and bankruptcy.”

Ryan’s plan doesn’t seek to cut spending from a range of federal anti-poverty initiatives, including food stamps, welfare programs and housing assistance. The House GOP’s recent budgets, all authored by Ryan, did cut funding for those programs.

Instead, Ryan’s “opportunity grant” calls for condensing those 11 programs into a single funding stream for participating states. He’s also proposed expanding tax credits for poor workers without children, curbing regulations that he says especially hurt low-income people and revamping the U.S. education system.

Lawmakers have said they don’t expect Ryan to try to mold his draft into legislation before the next Congress, when he is projected to take over the gavel of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Paul talked up his efforts to spur economic growth in poor areas, restoring voting rights to felons and criminal sentencing reforms during a Friday appearance before the National Urban League.

Rubio, while scoffing at Democrats’ poverty policies over the last half century, has also called for giving states more leeway to offer low-income services with federal money.

Some House conservatives on Friday said those sorts of efforts were crucial to the GOP’s long-term prospects and an area where Republicans needed improvement, even as they acknowledged those sorts of ideas are far from universally embraced.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), a leader in the House’s efforts to pare back food stamp spending in recent years, said the GOP allowed Democrats to cast them as uncaring for far too long, even though many party officials hadn’t grown up wealthy.

“We have to learn how to explain how our policies are going to help people,” Stutzman said. “It’s important that we learn to talk about people, and not just about policy and money.”

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) took a similar tack, saying the problem wasn’t with GOP policies but instead with how Republicans have gone about selling them.

Republicans, Mulvaney said, haven’t made a good case that free market conservatism helps lift people out of poverty “for the last, I don’t know, 100 years.”

 But that could change, he said, if the GOP follows Ryan’s lead. “What you’ve seen today is a willingness on our part to engage in a conversation about the things that Democrats think we’re afraid to talk about,” Mulvaney said.

Still, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) also acknowledged that the intensity of the immigration debate, including the current border negotiations, would make it “difficult” for the GOP to cast itself as more compassionate. 

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) went even further, saying he didn’t know whether the colleagues he famously derided as “lemmings” for helping plunge the GOP into a government shutdown last year would get on board.

“The folks that I refer to now as in the exotic club – you never know where they’re going to be,” Nunes said. 

Peter Schroeder contributed.