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Jim DeMint Ousted From Heritage Foundation In Major Shake-Up

Heritage Foundation President and former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 23.
Susan Walsh
Heritage Foundation President and former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 23.

Updated at 11:30 p.m. ET

Jim DeMint has been ousted as president of the Heritage Foundation, amid growing concerns over the direction of the influential conservative think tank.

While several news organizations had reported in recent days that his departure was imminent, Heritage's board of trustees did not mince words in a statement Tuesday confirming that the former South Carolina senator's exit came after a unanimous vote for his removal.

"After a comprehensive and independent review of the entire Heritage organization, the Board determined there were significant and worsening management issues that led to a breakdown of internal communications and cooperation. While the organization has seen many successes, Jim DeMint and a handful of his closest advisers failed to resolve these problems," board Chairman Thomas A. Saunders III said in the statement.

With DeMint's departure, his predecessor and the organization's founder, Ed Feulner, will step in as president and CEO in the interim as they search for DeMint's successor.

"There is no one better to guide the ship while we seek our new leader and continue to push for conservative ideas and policies in Washington and around the nation," Saunders said.

Politico first reported last week that DeMint was set to be removed just over four years after he shockingly announced he was stepping down from the Senate to take the reins at Heritage. In December 2012, NPR's Peter Overby wrote that "as the barriers crumble between policy research and partisan advocacy, the building blocks are there for DeMint and the conservative Heritage Foundation to build a powerful operation with political clout."

Instead, many within the organization felt that DeMint had "made the think tank too bombastic and political — to the detriment of its research and scholarly aims," Politico wrote, along with the "sense that he's made the institution too much about himself."

The Atlantic reported that the driving force behind DeMint's ouster was Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham, who oversees the group's 501(c)(4) political advocacy arm.

At the heart of some of the disagreements over DeMint was President Trump, though The Atlantic reported that Needham was trying to play to both the organization's backers who had supported the president and those who were wary of the former reality star's conservative orthodoxy:

"To the Trump-averse elements on the board, Needham has pointed to DeMint's growing coziness with the new administration as evidence that the think tank, a beacon of movement conservatism, needs a new steward. At the same time, Needham has been telling pro-Trump board members like Rebekah Mercer that Heritage needs a leader who will follow the president's lead—even going so far as to float White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, a key Mercer ally, as a potential future president, according to one source."

On Tuesday Politico also noted that the seeds of DeMint's ouster were also emblematic of the deep divides within conservative circles that permeated the bitter presidential primary:

"Disputes over the organization's mission stretch back a year. In many ways, they reflect the larger intellectual and organizational disarray among conservatives exposed by the rise of Trump, and exacerbated by his victory. Many of the institutions that have sustained the conservative movement are grappling with their role at a time when conservatism is on the wane — and with how to work constructively with a populist in the White House."

In a statement later Tuesday evening to the Weekly Standard, DeMint defended his record at Heritage:

"The public statement released earlier is puzzling given that the board of trustees has praised our work for four years and approved performance bonuses for the entire management team each year for a job well done. It also stands in stark contrast to the independent review by the University of Pennsylvania which publicly recognized advances in Heritage's scholarship, management and integrity over the last 4 years, and improved Heritage's rankings in virtually every category. In fact, Heritage was recognized as the 13th Best Managed Think Tank in the world in 2016."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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