The Heritage Foundation sits like a watchtower on Capitol Hill, a large building just steps from the U.S. Capitol on the northeast side of Massachusetts Avenue, where analysts work to shape conservative thought and influence legislation.
Suddenly, its academic, behind-the-scenes approach is getting a shakeup. Firebrand orator Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., will take over as president early next year after the retirement of its low-profile chief, Ed Feulner, on his 35th anniversary of running the think tank.
It means a raise for DeMint. Feulner earned $1.025 million in 2010, according to latest Internal Revenue Service nonprofit 990 forms, as well as $66,161 in additional compensation. U.S. senators are paid $174,000 a year.
For Republican lawmakers, candidates and political operatives, the Heritage Foundation has been a temple of conservative thought for its authoritative briefing papers and analysis, which they count on to be reliably researched.
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“It’s a major source of opposition to the Obama agenda,” said John J. Pitney, a former Republican Party research official and now a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “I’m sure DeMint will have a much higher profile at Heritage” than the current president.
“What Heritage does is influence the intellectual debate,” he said.
DeMint, a tea party advocate for small government, has focused on budget, taxes and entitlement reform – all among Heritage’s core issues.
"Under Ed Feulner, Heritage laid the foundation for the Reagan Revolution; under Jim DeMint, Heritage will continue laying the foundation for the next conservative revolution,” said Sen.-elect Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who was elected last month with DeMint’s help.
“Heritage has filled an important role and grown and matured since its founding,” said Tom Edmonds, a Republican political consultant. “It’s a touchstone on any issue. ‘Where is Heritage on this?’”
But DeMint’s presumed political ambitions raise the question: Will he stay for the long-term or use his new perch to prepare for a presidential run in 2016?
Asked if the organization’s board of directors had asked DeMint for a commitment not to run, Heritage spokesman James Weidman seemed surprised and said, “I can’t imagine that that even came up.” He later called back, saying that the terms of employment have not “been negotiated yet. The job was offered and accepted on the sole criteria of mission.”
David Beckwith, a longtime Republican adviser to Texas lawmakers like Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and who served as press secretary to former Vice President Dan Quayle, said that being a think tank president was “an unlikely path to a presidential candidacy.”
But there’s no denying Heritage’s influence in conservative circles. DeMint will enjoy a forum for his ideas, particularly at a time when the Republican Party is going through a period of political introspection in the wake of its failure to defeat President Barack Obama and take control of the Senate.
Heritage is a non-profit organization classified under tax laws as an educational institution. Its 2011 annual report shows total assets of $176 million. The group is reliant on donations and its membership levels range from contributions of $25 to $1 million, according to the report.
Among Heritage’s prominent fellows are Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese and former Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, a policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Board of trustees members include political financier Richard Mellon Scaife and publisher and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
Heritage has a sister lobbying organization, the Heritage Agenda, that is run separately and that DeMint will not oversee, Weidman said.
But his visibility as a conservative spokesman will most likely enhance the organization’s work, Beckwith said. He called Heritage “a one-stop shopping opportunity for the latest conservative thinking on politics and policy.”