As I have written earlier, the Heritage Foundation’s hiring of hard-line Republican Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) has raised questions whether the think tank, which is prohibited from engaging in partisan politics, is going to shed its scholarly reputation in favor of the bare-knuckle style of politics with which DeMint is associated.
His latest remarks should remind him and his admirers that he will need to be publicly circumspect. Breitbart.com reports that DeMint is not impressed with the Republican National Committee’s effort at self-evaluation and is going to audit the party himself: “We’re going to go out and do our own research. I know you can’t just ask people what they think, unless you give them cues. … I just see, looking at the political handling from the Republican side is so amateurish compared to even what I was doing in marketing 15 years ago, before I came to Congress. And the ability is there to be so much more sophisticated in targeting markets, segmenting and communicating with them individually.”
In response to a request for comment, Mike Gonzalez, Heritage’s vice president for communications, berated me over the phone. “I don’t understand where you are coming from with the things you are writing!” He denied that DeMint had talked about an audit but then said, “I wasn’t there. Talk to DeMint’s office.” Is Heritage planning on doing such an audit of the RNC? Gonzalez replied, “I haven’t heard of any plan to do what you just said.”
DeMint’s communications director Wesley Denton was at the interview. He calmly made the case in a brief phone interview that DeMint did not mean to suggest Heritage would be duplicating the RNC’s post-election audit. He explained. ” ‘Audit’ was [reporter Mike] Flynn’s word, not the senator’s.” (The Breitbart report is ambiguous.) He stressed that he didn’t work for Heritage, then added, “What he said was that we can’t allow the conservative message to be controlled only by one party.” He laughed, “No, There is not going to be an audit of the RNC by Heritage.”
This simply highlights the tricky tax laws DeMint will be obliged to comply with when he goes to a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity. A former Heritage employee cautions, “Memories over there seem tragically short: the Clinton administration’s IRS gave that place a proctologic 501(c)(3) exam back in ’98 … and compliance with the tax designation was HEAVILY emphasized during my tenure.”
An election lawyer echoed the cautionary message: “I would venture a guess that he has not yet had a real chat with Heritage’s lawyer. He can do a lot with ‘conservative,’ but not with ‘Republican.’ A (c)(3) could do a lot of identification on issues and attitudes, even microtargeting, as long as it wasn’t D-R.” He added, “He as an individual has more flexibility.”
Indeed, the tax laws are murky. The Internal Revenue Service will look at the specifics of every circumstance to determine if a tax-exempt organization crosses the line, and the penalties can be fierce for violation of tax rules, including loss of that prized tax-exempt status. The sort of restraints placed on DeMint once he leaves the Senate may chafe for a politician who has always spoken his mind.
To the dismay of right-wing antagonists of “establishment” Republicans, the 501(c)(3) entity cannot act as a shadow RNC, cannot weigh into primaries, cannot mount leadership challenges (or advocate that others do) and must remain above and beyond the political fray. What DeMint can do, and what most think-tank presidents spend an inordinate amount of their time doing, is fundraising. In this case, DeMint will be raising money for Heritage and not for favored GOP hard-line conservatives. All of that will take some getting used to, no doubt.