Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint participates in a question-and-answer… (Luke Sharrett/For The Washington…)
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It was a sleepy night in this historic town south of Nashville, but inside the ballroom of the local Marriott hotel, Michael Needham had more than 800 conservative activists on their feet.
“Can we defund Obamacare?” he called out.
“Yes, we can!” the crowd shouted back.
The rally was not the work of a tea party group or the local Republican congressman. Instead, it was produced by Heritage Action for America, the new advocacy arm of the venerable Heritage Foundation that is emerging as one of the most pugilistic forces on the right.
Such red-meat, campaign-style events have boosted Heritage’s standing with tea party activists, but they have also alienated many of the group’s longtime Republican allies on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Heritage Action came out against President Obama’s proposal to launch military action against Syria, putting the group at odds with House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders who back the strikes.
The Republican Study Committee, a group of the most conservative House members, recently barred Heritage analysts from its weekly strategy meetings, where they had played a central role for years, according to multiple people familiar with the episode. The move came after noisy disputes over a farm bill and other legislation, which left many lawmakers feeling blindsided by Heritage’s positions.
“I pay no attention to Heritage Action,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has accused the group of “destroying the Republican Party” with its push to strip funding for Obamacare. “They’ve become a purely partisan group that never asks anybody’s opinion.”
Since its founding in the 1970s, Heritage made its mark primarily as a purveyor of conservative ideas, exercising influence through dense policy papers and expert testimony. But through its new Heritage Action arm, the group is transforming itself into an overtly political force — scoring legislators on key votes, training “sentinels” to track lawmakers’ activities and marshaling loud rallies aimed at forcing Republicans to act.
Last month, the group roused the base with a series of packed “Defund Obamacare” meetings around the country featuring Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action, and former U.S. senator Jim DeMint, the new president of the Heritage Foundation.
“Folks, we can’t allow this plague to come onto the American people,” DeMint told the audience in Franklin, which murmured its assent.
Heritage veterans’ exit
The shift toward political activism has dismayed some longtime Heritage scholars; more than half a dozen have left in recent months. But Heritage officials say the mission of the think tank has not changed and note that it has a long track record of disagreement with Republican leaders.
“We’re doing more research and policy work than we’ve ever done,” DeMint told reporters before the Franklin rally. “The only difference is now that we have a sister organization that is taking those ideas to the people and Congress in a more aggressive way.”
Still, the campaign to threaten a government shutdown Oct. 1, unless Obama agrees to strip funding from his signature health law, marks a dramatic departure from what former employees call “the old Heritage.” Until recently, those staffers said, the think tank was reluctant to even place scolding editorials in local newspapers.
Now, representatives of the advocacy arm are traveling the country in an attempt to pressure lawmakers to vote against funding the government in the new fiscal year unless the bill also halts spending for Obamacare. Top GOP aides believe the proposal has little chance of success and is likely to backfire.
Boehner has promoted a different strategy aimed at challenging House Democrats to take a stand on controversial parts of the health-care law in a series of votes. Meanwhile, liberal groups have played up the possibility that GOP hostility to Obamacare could shut down the government: Americans United for Change followed Heritage Action on its tour last month, staging counter-events highlighting the law’s benefits.
GOP strategist Brian J. Walsh, a former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the Heritage approach is encouraging “fratricide” within the party. “There are a number of people who are frustrated, because what may be good for Heritage Action’s fundraising or growing its mailing list is not necessarily good for the Republican Party heading into 2014,” he said.
Among the conservative lawmakers in the group’s crosshairs is Rep. Renee L. Ellmers of North Carolina, who voted 40 times to defund or dismantle the health-care law. But Ellmers believes the Heritage plan is unworkable, and was among 100 House Republicans targeted by Heritage Action last month with online ads.