What Does The Chaos At The Heritage Foundation Say About The Conservative Movement In 2017?

UPDATE: Jim DeMint is out.

Over at The Federalist, Mollie Hemingway has more details on efforts to oust former senator Jim DeMint as president of The Heritage Foundation. Reports surfaced late last week that DeMint was being forced out because he had taken the conservative non-profit in too political a direction. Lots of unnamed sources predicted that a “purge” of staff, particularly those loyal to DeMint, was imminent.

Not so fast, says Hemingway.

That’s the public narrative. The narrative offered independently by multiple sources with intimate knowledge of the ongoing turmoil, several of whom are not particularly sympathetic to DeMint, is quite different. According to these sources, the actual story is the exact opposite of what has thus far been peddled in the media, and it all starts with Ed Feulner’s creation of Heritage Action in 2010 and his decision to let Mike Needham, a brash former Rudy Giuliani operative, control the new operation. Contrary to the media narrative floated last week that DeMint needlessly politicized Heritage and turned it into a brass-knuckle political combat group instead of a policy-focused think tank, these sources say Needham bears much of the blame for politicizing Heritage.

Like many D.C.-based organizations, Heritage has two arms. Its 501(c)(3) arm is the think tank; it produces the research and white papers for which Heritage is famous and on which many Republican policy proposals have been based over the years. The 501(c)(4) arm is Heritage Action, and it was created in 2010, presumably, to take their policy proposals and turn them into legislation.

Heritage Action was almost definitely created to claim a piece of the Tea Party Movement for the Heritage Foundation. This was not uncommon, as groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity did the same. Tea Partiers prized action amongst all else, so right-of-center organizations were smart to up their activism game. It was a good move by Heritage.

Jim DeMint was a darling of the Tea Party Movement; he was Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. His move from the Senate to Heritage seemed a clear sign that Heritage was all in on the nascent movement.

So, what went wrong? Hemingway writes:

Rather than pushing to make Heritage more political and less focused on producing high-quality policy research, DeMint actually tried to rein in Heritage Action in recent years, as the 501(c)(4) group began racking up enemy after enemy on Capitol Hill without actually putting any congressional policy points on the board. Multiple sources told The Federalist that Needham bristled at DeMint’s repeated attempts to assert control over the splinter organization and began plotting to overthrow DeMint once it became clear that the former South Carolina senator had no desire to outsource control of the think tank to the 30-something political operative with no policy background. At one point, a high-placed source told The Federalist, Needham personally confronted DeMint and his team and told them that DeMint was done, that Needham himself would be taking over the organization.

Okay, so it sounds like a classic power struggle, with Needham aligning himself with DeMint’s predecessor, Ed Fuelner. But is there more to it, something – or someone – that has the conservative movement scratching its collective head as to the path forward?

Probably. Heritage was one of the few center-right organizations not to run from Donald Trump during 2016. Whether this was a calculated move by DeMint is unclear, but, hey, he’s a politician and perhaps foresaw the events of November 8. He’s also beholden to Heritage’s donor base, many of whom likely supported Trump when he became the nominee.

Could the coup against Jim DeMint be in some part retaliation for Heritage’s alignment with Trump? It would not be surprising, as it’s a scenario being played out at all levels of the conservative movement right now. We’re 100+ days into the Trump administration and there is still no clarity on what it all means for conservatives.

The Heritage Foundation’s board is meeting today to decide Jim DeMint’s fate. Their decision may be a foreshadowing of where the conservative movement is heading.