Rumored Coup at the Heritage Foundation

April 28, 2017; New York Times

Rumors swirled in Washington late last week that former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), who has served as president of the conservative Heritage Foundation since 2013, is on the verge of being removed from the conservative think tank. According to the persistent rumors, Heritage co-founder Edwin J. Feulner, Jr. would resume as president on an interim basis. Feulner served as president from 1977 until DeMint’s hiring and is currently a trustee.

On the surface, the $92 million 501(c)(3) Heritage Foundation and its related $11 million 501(c)(4), Heritage Action for America, would seem to be enjoying great opportunity and recent success with DeMint at the helm. After all, there is a Republican in the White House, Republican control of the U.S. House, a slim Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, and near-record GOP presence in governorships, statehouses, and local offices across the country. Most recently, it shared credit with the Federalist Society for the research and advocacy work that resulted in the nomination and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

There are two issues that appear to be propelling a move for change. The pretext is the recent lack of success in moving the GOP in Congress to proceed with a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a conservative goal dating from the time of the bill’s passage. This is seen as evidence that DeMint isn’t enough of a Trump supporter and team player for the new administration. DeMint is also seen as too aggressive and confrontational. One Heritage board member said, “Jim brought everyone in from the Senate to Heritage and made it hyper-political. Heritage is also about civil society and culture. He’s taken that off of the table.” NPQ reported on complaints about changes in Heritage’s research standards not long after DeMint took over.

The underlying reason may be the tension between DeMint as president of Heritage Foundation and Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action. DeMint has been seeking to de-emphasize or even end the activities of Heritage Action, a move fiercely opposed by Needham. Needham believes Heritage needs to be more involved in political debate, while DeMint has been accused of running Heritage Foundation like it’s a Senate office rather than a think tank.

Whenever anyone uses the word “coup” to describe the departure of a nonprofit CEO, the temptation is to look for shadowy figures manipulating events behind the scenes. Needham is definitely involved, according to the rumors. The speculation is that Feulner’s return as president will be as a figurehead, with Needham, who was once Feulner’s chief of staff, taking real control of both the foundation and Heritage Action.

This isn’t the only possible scenario, however. Former Breitbart News CEO and current White House advisor Steve Bannon is rumored to be in the running for Heritage CEO. Heritage Foundation would be a soft place to land for the embattled Bannon, providing him with an influential high-profile position and a million-dollar salary. Among Heritage Foundation’s trustees is Rebekah Mercer, a longtime Bannon supporter,having supported Breitbart and Bannon’s Government Accountability Institute, with apparent conflicts of interest, which NPQ addressed last November.

DeMint isn’t going quietly, however. He’s working his contacts on Capitol Hill to garner support and warn Heritage trustees that a change to either Needham or Bannon would signal a real change in the relationship between the foundation and the GOP on Capitol Hill. However, a letter from 20 (and counting) legislators scheduled to be released as soon as later today seems to be at least as much a letter of recommendation and a send-off as it does a plea for Heritage to retain DeMint. The letter reads, “For the last two decades, you have served faithfully as a leading advocate for America at its best. You have consistently promoted our founding-era vision of America as a nation of empowered, flourishing citizens.” The letter concludes, “As you prepare to take the next step in your fateful, courageous career, we applaud and thank you for being our leader, our friend, and our champion.”—Michael Wyland