Marc Hyden said a Georgia-based tea partyer came up to him in February with a bit of a confession. "I’ve been against the death penalty for 30 years," the man said. "I just never told anyone."
It's a sentiment Hyden, a coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty, said he has heard quite a bit since the organization launched about three years ago. CCADP is a network of political and social conservatives who question how the death penalty truly aligns with core conservative values like sanctity of life, fiscal responsibility and a limited government.
“I think the question of ‘do you support the death penalty’ can be confusing," Hyden told The Huffington Post last week. "If you change the question from ‘do you support the death penalty or not,’ to ‘would you support replacing it with life without parole,' the numbers shift dramatically.”
Since its formation, CCADP has had a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of conservative activists known for its big-name speakers and lively exhibition hall.
“We were really nervous our first time going about the reception we would receive,” Hyden’s co-coordinator, Heather Beaudoin, said. “Now, we’re seen as a welcome part of the establishment, which is really interesting. No one questions whether or not we belong and we’ve shown that there are lot of conservatives who are concerned about the death penalty.”
At the most recent conference, CCADP wasn't attracting as many people as, say, the National Rifle Association's shooting game or the folks giving out "Stand with Rand" T-shirts, but a few curious folks stopped by.
“I worked at the NRA before [CCADP], so I was used to being the darling of the conservative crowd,” Hyden said. “I thought [CCADP] would be tarred and feathered, but it was the opposite."
A Pew Research survey published this month indicates support for capital punishment among Republicans has fallen 10 percent in the past two decades. While the decline appears gradual, Gallup Poll numbers show that Republican support for the death penalty dropped 5 percent from 2013 to 2014, from 81 percent to 76 percent.
Nowhere is the shifting attitude more apparent than in Nebraska, where the nonpartisan, single-house legislature recently voted 30-13 in support of a bill that would repeal the death penalty.
The Republican coalition supporting LB 268, which would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole, argues capital punishment conflicts with conservative values.
But some fellow Republicans -- including Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has vowed to veto the bill -- call the death penalty an important tool for public safety.
"If it deterred crime, you’d expect states like Texas to have the lowest murder rate," Hyden said.
For its part, CCADP focuses on getting the death penalty repealed on a state-by-state basis. Hyden said the group doesn't much deal with the federal death penalty -- which affects cases like that of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
"Because of our tax status, we don’t get involved with elected politics," Hyden adds when asked about the group's stance on the current crop of 2016 Republican presidential candidates. "That’s not to say we don’t keep an eye on [where they stand]."
Hyden said the group has had meaningful talks with and been welcomed by figures with "serious conservative credentials": former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Fox News correspondent Col. Oliver North.
"But on the opposite end of the spectrum, you have someone like [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry, who says he sleeps quite fine after signing somebody’s death warrant," Hyden said. "I have to feel troubled when I hear things like that."
Hyden said he's optimistic that once conservatives truly stop and consider the reality of the death penalty -- "it's a big government program that risks lives and it’s extremely costly and fails at all its goals" -- a growing number will support ending it in America.
“It's becoming more difficult to ignore because it’s out there and folks are really having conversations on it," Beaudoin said. "The more you know about this issue, the more you’re going to be concerned about the death penalty and the way it’s being carried out. People are waking up and saying, ‘this really isn’t worth it anymore.’"
Amanda Terkel contributed to this report.
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