Former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, for years a controversial conservative icon, is officially out as head of Washington’s powerful Heritage Foundation, as the organization vies to regain its position as the intellectual leader of the right.
The announcement came Tuesday afternoon from Thomas A. Saunders III, chairman of Heritage’s board of trustees, after days of reports concerning DeMint’s imperiled future at the organization.
“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,” Saunders said in a statement. “While the organization has seen many successes, Jim DeMint and a handful of his closest advisers failed to resolve these problems.”
DeMint, a forerunner of the tea party and an uncompromising conservative, enjoyed a close relationship with Donald Trump’s White House, helping to stack the administration with Heritage alums and allies. He also wielded significant influence with conservative leaders in Congress and within the broader movement, even as he racked up his fair share of critics among more moderate Republicans. In recent months, he served as a conduit between conservatives on Capitol Hill and those in the White House, he told McClatchy earlier this year.
But he has faced internal ire at Heritage over taking the organization in a direction some perceived as too political, according to reports.
“Heritage has never been about one individual, but rather the power of conservative ideas,” the statement continued. “Heritage is bigger than any one person.”
Heritage founder Ed Feulner will serve as president and CEO of the organization as Heritage seeks a replacement, the statement said.
In the DeMint years, Heritage was increasingly perceived by critics as less of a think tank and more of thorn in the side of Republicans considered too centrist or willing to compromise. In the statement, Saunders signaled that going forward, the board wants to emphasize intellectual leadership.
“Heritage is a permanent policy research institution fighting for conservative ideas, as Ed Feulner often reminds us,” the statement continued. “We remain committed, as ever, to the principles that have made America great: free enterprise; limited government; individual freedom; traditional American values; and a strong national defense.”
Saunders added: “I wholeheartedly endorse this change. It will make Heritage stronger in the short term and the long run.”
But DeMint’s allies on Capitol Hill didn’t see it that way.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., a House Freedom Caucus member. “He’s an icon, well-respected, he’s a conservative who served…no one knows what it’s like to serve” in Congress.
He said DeMint understood both the think tank world and the workings of Congress, adding “to lose someone like him is incomprehensible. I don’t get it at all."
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said he found DeMint “to be a true conservative and a fellow I thought the world of.” Jones thought DeMint was effective at Heritage.
“I’m shocked, “ Jones said of DeMint’s removal. “I don’t get it.”
DeMint also received home state back-up from Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
“I don’t know what the future of Heritage is,” Gowdy said, stressing that he didn’t know the circumstances of the departure. But, he added, “I hope Sen. DeMint stays in public policy.”
William Douglas and Donovan Harrell contributed to this report.