No Quarter

Heritage Action, the Group Giving Boehner Fits, and Its Confident CEO

Michael Needham, the young CEO of Heritage Action, is giving no ground on Obamacare. Eleanor Clift on his drive to reshape the GOP.

After the 2012 election, when other conservatives were licking their wounds, Michael Needham narrated a Heritage Action video declaring, “We are in a war,” a call to action for conservatives. Defunding Obamacare became the holy grail, with a passion that catapulted House Republicans into a government shutdown that Needham says he didn’t want. But in war, there’s always collateral damage. “Over the course of the next week, President Obama will feel the pain,” he says confidently. “We will win the debate.”

Needham says everything with great confidence. The 31-year-old is the CEO of Heritage Action, the political advocacy group that is giving House Speaker John Boehner fits. As Boehner and others try to steer Republicans away from Obamacare to more achievable economic concessions, Needham doesn’t give ground. “Any CR [continuing resolution to fund the government] of any length that doesn’t address Obamacare is not acceptable,” he told reporters at a breakfast Wednesday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

He calls the idea being floated that repealing a tax on medical devices might placate conservatives “laughable.” He stops short of attaching conditions for Congress to raise the debt ceiling, explaining that Heritage Action has made a tactical decision to focus on the shutdown. But he echoes what many conservatives are saying, that default on the debt will never happen, that Obama and the Democrats are “fear-mongering.”

Conservatives fighting to overturn Obamacare are “authentically” representing the voters, Needham says. He uses the words authentic and authentically a lot, as in Heritage Action’s goal is to help the Republican Party “become a party that more authentically stands up to the corporate class.” The Republican Party is in a bind, he says, caught between the voters and the lobbyists, with lawmakers telling their constituents one thing “while making sure the money train keeps running from K Street.”

Needham’s populist rhetoric sounds a little hollow when under questioning he refuses to disclose the corporate donations that fund Heritage Action or the big donors that underwrite the advocacy group, which is an arm of the Heritage Foundation, a Reagan-era think tank. Needham does confirm that the Koch brothers gave $500,000 and that they are not the group’s biggest donors.

Needham grew up a child of privilege on the West Side of New York City, a liberal bastion. His father is a prominent hedge fund investor. The son worked on Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign and holds a degree from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, credentials once sure to produce a moderate Republican. Instead he’s at the cutting edge of a new kind of Republican, more Ted Cruz than Ronald Reagan, whose presidency drew on the Heritage Foundation for ideas.

Needham points out that Cruz was 10 when Reagan was inaugurated and that Mitt Romney was an independent when Reagan was president. Smart, ambitious, and in a hurry to remake the Republican Party, or maybe blow it up and hasten its demise, Needham has no apologies to make for bringing what he sees as the grassroots of America into the halls of Congress. Those grassroots, of course, are well fertilized with the donations of corporations and wealthy individuals well hidden behind a façade of authenticity.