The Heritage Foundation has narrowed its search for a new president down to a shortlist of finalists, a group that includes Todd Ricketts, a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, and Marc Short, a senior Trump White House official, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
In addition to Ricketts and Short, Heritage's board of trustees also has expressed interest in Lisa B. Nelson, the chief executive of the American Legislative Exchange Council, and David Trulio, a vice president at Lockheed Martin, the people said on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The conservative think tank's trustees, however, remain torn over their decision. Kay Coles James — a Heritage board member who served as the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management under President George W. Bush and is close to Heritage founder Edwin J. Feulner — has been mentioned by several associates as someone who could serve in a temporary capacity if the board cannot settle on a candidate.
The group's clout in Washington was underscored by President Trump's appearance Tuesday night at a gathering of its President's Club at a Washington hotel.
Heritage's board includes many wealthy right-wing figures, including Steve Forbes, Rebekah A. Mercer and Thomas A. Saunders III.
The top job at the influential conservative outpost has been open since May, when Jim DeMint, the Republican firebrand and former South Carolina senator, was pushed out, although Fuelner has been serving as the interim president. The search process is still in flux, and it is not clear whether the leading candidates under consideration have formally been contacted by the Heritage board — or would accept the position.
For Ricketts — a longtime Republican activist whose father, Joe, is the founder of TD Ameritrade and brother is Pete Ricketts, the current Nebraska governor — the posting would offer him and his family even greater influence in helping to shape the direction of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
Trump selected Ricketts to serve as deputy commerce secretary, but in April he withdrew his nomination from consideration, citing an inability to untangle his financial holdings to the satisfaction of the Office of Government Ethics.
Ricketts's father helped finance Future45, a super PAC that spent lavishly for Trump in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, giving the group at least $1 million through the end of September, Federal Election Commission filings show. Joe Ricketts and his wife, Marlene, also contributed nearly $344,000 to support Trump's campaign and the Republican Party. The Rickettses' financial support for Trump was a dramatic reversal from the primaries, when Joe and Marlene Ricketts gave more than $5.5 million to Our Principles PAC, a super PAC that ran a slew of hard-hitting ads against Trump.
Short, the director of legislative affairs at the White House, has strong conservative credentials, previously leading Freedom Partners, the political operation for billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and before that working for Vice President Pence when Pence was a rising star on the right during his days in the U.S. House.
It is unclear whether Short has expressed interest in the job, and he has not met with the Heritage board. But if selected — and if he were to accept — he would represent yet another high-profile departure from Trump's administration, which has already faced steady turnover and shake-ups.
Nelson, Ricketts, Short and Trulio did not respond to requests for comment, and a spokeswoman for Heritage also declined to weigh in on the specific finalists.
"The Heritage Foundation Board of Trustees continues to search for a new president who demonstrates an unwavering commitment to continuing Heritage's legacy of rigorous research and fighting for the conservative principles at our core," Heritage spokeswoman Sarah Mills said in an email statement. "The board has identified and is continuing to interview a handful of well-qualified finalists for the position. When we have something to announce, we'll announce it."
The talks have at times stalled this summer and fall as Heritage trustees have debated the future of the think tank. Those ongoing deliberations have led several people close to the process to say Fuelner may end up asking James to take over as interim president. Coles James is not well-known in conservative circles nationally but is respected within Heritage and by its donors. Coles James did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a Trump ally, was another person considered in earlier talks inside Heritage, although Meadows made clear to several people close to the think tank that he preferred to remain in Congress, a person familiar with the discussions said.
J.D. Vance, the best-selling author of "Hillbilly Elegy," a memoir about his upbringing in Appalachia, was also floated early in the process as a possible high-profile, younger recruit. He has met in recent months with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist who has returned to his post running Breitbart News, and Bannon has privately expressed a desire to see an ally installed at Heritage.
Matea Gold contributed to this report.