Before Donald Trump began terrorizing the Republican establishment, there was Michael Needham.
The 35-year-old conservative prodigy has spent six years instilling panic in Washington Republicans as head of Heritage Action for America. But instead of pitching himself as the solution to D.C.’s problems, Needham conducts his own slash-and-burn campaign to rid Congress of policies and players he sees as insufficiently conservative — many of them fellow Republicans.
His strategy at Heritage Action is deceptively simple: identify votes that should be important to the conservative base, then grade lawmakers on where they stand. The result has been chaos and gridlock on Capitol Hill, as Republicans rush to side with Heritage Action and avoid the friendly fire of the 1.9 million grassroots conservatives in its network.
Needham, a native New Yorker who has never worked on Capitol Hill, is unapologetic about leading one of Washington’s most feared advocacy groups.
“The anger [from voters] comes from a place that is profoundly right,” Needham said in an interview, referring to Trump’s political success. “I think we [Heritage Action] have landed exactly where the mood of the electorate is. I think that is why politicians are channeling our message. A Trump election or nomination is a complete vindication that Washington needs to change.”
Washington Republicans might panic at the thought of a Trump presidency, but Needham says he does not. He believes that underneath the bluster, the businessman is malleable on specifics — specifics that Needham and his team could provide.
“A President Trump who tries to find policies that address the themes he’s been addressing would be a fantastic opportunity for us to shape the policy agenda,” he said.
Needham has been channeling Trump-style anger at the nation’s capital and his own party since 2010, when he founded Heritage Action, an independent sister organization of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. His group isn’t endorsing in the presidential race, but it is know for its close ties to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who shows a similar dedication to breaking Washington from the inside.
As an activist, Needham is a ruthless ideological minder for the right. As a Washington elite-in-the-making, he is the face of a new generation of power players who defy the stereotype that in D.C., you go along to get along. And like Trump, he’s an outsider with an insider’s pedigree: born in Manhattan, raised in a wealthy family and educated at the Collegiate School, Williams College and Stanford Business School.
“I grew up in New York City, went to college in Massachusetts, and grad school in California,” Needham said. He noted that his wife — Uber executive Rachel Holt — is a Democrat. “I’m more comfortable around Democrats than I am around conservatives.”
He might not be a popular guy with Washington’s business-oriented GOP establishment. But Needham doesn’t seem to care if he’s part of the club.
“Look, I don’t yearn for a social life that revolves around going to cocktail parties at the Chamber of Commerce. If that’s how I derived affirmation, I would be doing a really bad job of it,” he said.
Though Heritage Action has failed to achieve some of its larger goals, such as stopping ObamaCare, Needham’s work has had a profound impact on how business is conducted in Washington. The fact that legislative brinkmanship is now routine is no accident: the near-misses on funding the government, raising the debt ceiling and approving must-pass bills are all but ordained in the Heritage Action playbook as ways of extracting policy concessions.
At the moment, Heritage Action is pressuring Senate Republicans to block President Obama’s eventual Supreme Court nominee and House Republicans to lower federal spending targets in their next budget. Both battles will help determine the group’s influence in the final year of Obama’s presidency, and set the temperature of Heritage Action’s relationship with new House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Needham believes the group’s score-keeping is noble work and defends it as comparable to investigative journalism. But his critics are far more cynical.
“They prey on people’s frustration with the process and they fundraise off that,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a friend of ex-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was ousted because of conservative demands supported by groups like Needham’s. “At the end of the day, most of these groups aren’t doing anything to actually impact policy that helps their stated goals.”
Heritage Action’s methods speak to its disdain for the traditional ways of amassing influence in Washington. Its favorite tool is the surprise email blast declaring that an upcoming measure will be a “key vote” — that is, counted for lawmakers’ report cards. Though polite, these messages are typically received as threats by would-be dissenters. Because they also reach the media and the activist community, the announcements can doom measures — even seemingly inconsequential procedural moves — that otherwise would have passed.
Though Heritage Action doesn’t endorse in GOP election fights, its scorecard can inspire primary challengers against Republicans who stray from conservative orthodoxy.
Retired Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), chairman and CEO of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, called the group’s tactics “destructive.”
“They lost me when they began shooting inside the tent,” said LaTourette, another friend of Boehner’s. “Their targets stopped being liberals and people who were trying to take the country to the left, and their fire was aimed at people who they judged as not conservative enough.”
LaTourette added: “Those ‘key votes’ make people nervous, because when you make a conscious decision to go against them, you guarantee yourself a primary election.”
Heritage Action was born with fangs out.
It was the spring of 2010 when then-Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner enlisted Needham to launch a group that would hold lawmakers accountable for their votes. Needham had worked at the Heritage Foundation after graduating from Williams and rose quickly to become Feulner’s chief of staff before he left for Rudy Giuliani’s 2007 presidential campaign and graduate school at Stanford.
That April, Needham and Feulner published a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “New Fangs for the Conservative ‘Beast.'” Heritage Action would be the “fangs” to the Heritage Foundation’s “beast,” they wrote, describing a kind of enforcement division for conservative dogma. The piece ended with a quote from Ronald Reagan: “If you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”
Feulner offered strong praise for Needham in an interview, even as he described Heritage Action’s rise as an “adjustment” for the foundation’s less confrontational employees.
“Mike is a tough guy,” Feulner said. “He’s confident in himself. He impresses some people as cocky, but it’s an earned self-confidence … He knows when to thrust and when to parry. I think that’s something a lot of people underestimate with Mike. He’s not always blasting full-bore ahead. He knows when he has to circle the wagons.”
When Heritage Action was starting out, the wagons would circle in Needham’s home, where he sometimes invited conservative lawmakers, staffers and activists for pizza, wine and shoptalk. Participants said Needham would command the troops with confidence and defy lawmakers who called for retreat.
“Mike’s good at his job,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who was often present at these sessions. “He’s willing to engage in a vigorous and passionate way, and that’s certainly what is needed now.”
Feulner defended Needham’s willingness to use brinkmanship for conservative ends.
“People have actually told me within the last 24 hours that the shutdown was terrible,” he said. “In my view, what it basically did was define the roles of the opposition party. Two years later, we had a gain of 5 or 6 Senate seats. It proved to voters that conservatives had the guts to take a stand on principle.”
Some observers believe Heritage Action has softened its tactics in the last year, doing more to advocate policy reforms and to rail against forces broader than just Republicans. “I think that is what winning looks like,” Needham said.
A critique of America’s ruling class, including its financial elites, runs through Needham’s rhetoric. This can seem ironic to some who know Needham’s background: he is a child of the Upper East Side, raised at 79th Street and Park Avenue, by a father who founded a lucrative investment firm.
“My dad got involved in investment banking when it was a humble industry,” Needham said. “He had no debt in his company when 2008 happened. There were a whole lot of people who leveraged up their balance sheets and got burned because they got greedy and divorced from the values that made banking a noble profession.”
Needham’s father has been reported to be a member of Kappa Beta Phi, an secret society of Wall Street bankers, and he once employed and worked closely with Raj Rajaratnam, the Sri Lankan hedge fund manager and tabloid figure later convicted for insider trading at another firm. The family also has connections in the media: Needham’s younger brother Paul worked for Charlie Rose until last year.
Needham is proud of his New York roots. So what does he make of the denunciation of “New York values” by Cruz in the presidential primary?
“I think Ted Cruz was exactly right to lash out at New York values,” he said. “New York City’s a great place, I love it, [but] in the types of circles that Donald Trump lived in, that I grew up in, there are people who have never met an evangelical Christian … people who have never met a home-schooled person … people who think people ‘cling to their guns and their religion’ and have probably never met a gun owner.
“I think the values of the Acela corridor — New York, Washington — are deeply out of touch with the compassion and — he paused — “awesomeness of middle America.”
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.