Heritage Action CEO charts ‘libertarian, populist’ path to GOP victory

Needham’s prescription for the GOP comes amid a raging internal debate within the Republican Party over what went wrong in the 2012 elections. 

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The GOP lost the presidency, failed to regain the Senate majority and lost seats in the House. The results shook conservatives who had believed voters — after living through a tepid economic recovery during President Obama’s first term — had soured on Democrats.  

The Republican National Committee issued a lengthy post-election report earlier this year arguing the party should concentrate on expanding its appeal to women, minorities and young voters. 

Many establishment Republicans contend that requires adopting more centrist political positions, especially in regards to immigration and social issues.

Others, however, have argued that the GOP did poorly because it failed to excite more populist voters — especially blue-collar whites — to turn out. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has been a chief advocate of that position.

Heritage has doubled down on its hard-line conservatism since the election.

Needham’s organization has been a thorn in the side of the GOP establishment for much of the year. 

It has fought hard against immigration reform — urging the House against passage of a comprehensive bill. The group has also played a major role in pushing Republicans to insist on defunding ObamaCare as a precondition for keeping the federal government open. 

Needham made it clear Heritage would not support any attempt to reopen the government if it didn’t also defund ObamaCare.

He said that Main Street approach is partly why Republicans can’t settle for just getting rid of the medical device tax in ObamaCare, a move he called “laughable” because of its small scope and focus on helping the medical industry over average Americans. 

Some centrist Republicans have fought to do just that as a way to end the government shutdown.

Heritage Action has faced a backlash among many Republicans, including some of the party’s most conservative members, for putting intense pressure on lawmakers to toe a hard line on policy. 

Some activists say the group’s tactics have resulted in severe damage to the GOP’s brand. Several recent polls show voters blame Republicans the most for the shutdown.

“You can't just say everyone is a RINO [Republican In Name Only] except you. It doesn't hold water after a while,” said Brian Walsh, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director and a vocal critic of Heritage’s targeting of Republicans.

“That's why you're seeing the argument [among congressional Republicans] shift to the debt limit and away from the defunding ObamaCare argument.”

Walsh said Heritage Action’s demands for ideological purity “ignores basic math” as an electoral strategy. 

“Republicans lost last cycle because we lost independents, we lost minorities, and there was a gender gap. Those are the three things the RNC appropriately identified in their report earlier this year,” Walsh said. 

“That's why it's so important, instead of fighting amongst ourselves, we should be focused on growing the party and extending outreach into those sectors of electorate that we lost last year.” 

Walsh noted that “Mitt Romney got a higher share of the white vote than George Bush did” during his campaigns. 

“The issue is, we're losing what's an increasing share of the electorate in terms of minorities,” he continued. 

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said Needham was right on ideology but wrong on strategy.

“What the GOP needs to do is not be seen as the bean-counters of Wall Street. They need to be the defenders of Main Street. With respect to the shutdown and ObamaCare, principally Needham is right — but tactically he couldn't be more wrong,” O’Connell said.

“This [ObamaCare] needs to be re-litigated in 2014 and 2016 and we have to do a better job of messaging to get public opinion on our side before we take that hill.”

Needham, during the Monitor breakfast, himself showed why it would be hard for the GOP to effectively break with its wealthy benefactors. 

He said “corporate donations are a small part of our overall fundraising,” estimating it was 4 percent of his donations. But he declined to discuss who exactly was backing Heritage Action.

 “We’re not being transparent on our donors, that’s true,” he acknowledged.

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