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The Heritage Foundation Heralds Its Populist Evolution
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The Heritage Foundation Heralds Its Populist Evolution

Plus: More on DeSantis and abortion.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks alongside Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts during the foundation's 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on April 21, 2023, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Happy Monday! Only 12 percent of respondents in a recent Wall Street Journal-NORC poll said they are “very happy,” the smallest share of “very happy” respondents on record since NORC started conducting its general social survey more than 50 years ago. But don’t think your political foes are getting a better deal than you, the Journal’s Aaron Zitner reports: “Neither political party claims a disproportionate share of the very happy.”

Up to Speed

  • President Joe Biden, age 80, is reportedly gearing up to launch his long-anticipated 2024 reelection campaign via a video announcement on Tuesday, the four-year anniversary of his 2020 presidential campaign launch. “The people briefed on the plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, cautioned that the official announcement could be delayed,” the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—the anti-vaccine activist, environmental lawyer, and son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy—announced Wednesday that he will run for president in 2024, joining self-help author Marianne Williamson as the second candidate to challenge Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination this cycle.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence told CBS’ Face the Nation that if he decides to run for president in 2024, his announcement will come “well before late June.” Pence will join Steve Hayes and Sarah Isgur on The Dispatch Podcast later this week.
  • West Virginia’s Republican Gov. Jim Justice is gearing up to announce his long-anticipated bid for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s seat in 2024, Politico reported on Friday. A formal announcement on Thursday would kick off an expensive and closely watched GOP primary battle between Justice (an early favorite of the National Republican Senatorial Committee) and Club for Growth-backed Rep. Alex Mooney, who announced his Senate bid in November and has since racked up support from a handful of state legislators. Not that Justice is counting. “I’m really glad that there were — and I think you named three or four legislators who were supportive of Alex Mooney,” Justice told MetroNews last week. “That means now that he’s up to seven votes in the state, and I’m hoping he’s going to get more than that and make this thing more fun if I decide to run.”
  • RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel announced Thursday that the second GOP presidential primary debate will take place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. 
  • North Carolina’s GOP Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson officially launched his gubernatorial campaign on Saturday, joining Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein and Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell in a crowded field to succeed Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is term-limited. 
  • Never Back Down, the pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC, is courting Republicans in the Iowa Legislature as it builds grassroots support for the Florida governor’s presumed presidential bid, The Dispatch has learned. Sources say veteran Republican operative David Polyansky has been at the state capitol in Des Moines meeting with Republican legislators to encourage them to support DeSantis in 2024. Polyansky, who knows the political terrain in the key early primary states, is engaged in similar activities for Never Back Down in South Carolina. In 2016, Polyansky advised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Heritage at 50

The Heritage Foundation celebrated its 50th anniversary last week with the triumphant message that the most prominent conservative think tank in Washington is fully aligned with the Republican party’s recent embrace of nationalist populism.

In his opening remarks Thursday, Heritage President Kevin Roberts argued that the old conservative coalition was insufficient to face down today’s “tyrannical, elitist, anti-America, anti-Constitution” left. 

“Decades of frustration and failure have shown us that the old Washington red team of free marketers, neoconservatives, and evangelicals alone is simply not enough,” Roberts said to the crowd of donors and notables at the Gaylord National Resort just outside of D.C.

Others who spoke at the Heritage celebration took direct aim at the old GOP regime—one that Heritage itself had helped build. In his Thursday remarks, Republican Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio went after the billions of dollars in American military aid to Ukraine and savaged “a foreign policy that sends American troops, American blood and treasure to where it simply doesn’t belong and will do no good.”

Certain elements of Heritage’s historic free-trade agenda were on the chopping block too—particularly with regard to China, from which speakers argued America needed a “strategic decoupling.” “I don’t know if Kevin Roberts is here, or [Executive Vice President Derrick Morgan] is here,” recently hired China scholar Michael Pillsbury said during a panel discussion on Thursday, “but we all owe a round of applause to their coming to Heritage and reversing its approach to China.”

Heritage has long conceived of itself as more than a think tank of policy-minded academics, positioning itself as the intellectual leader and ideological shepherd of the large and unwieldy conservative movement. For most of its history, it was the foremost champion of the three-legged fusionist stool that first showed its electoral prowess with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980: a free-market, free-trade economic agenda; a muscular foreign policy; and a traditionalist stance on social issues.

But the Trump years unsettled the ideological terms and conditions of the conservative movement. In 2021, Heritage brought in Roberts, who arrived from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, with a new mission for the organization: If Heritage were to continue to thrive, it would need to make nice with the GOP’s new currents as quickly as possible. 

So who’s getting added to the new Heritage coalition? One good indication could be found across town this weekend at a concurrent event: a Heritage-sponsored summit put on by the Bull Moose Project, a small organization that bills itself as training “the next generation of AMERICA-FIRST leaders and policies.”

A small outfit run by a handful of twentysomething populists, the Bull Moose Project and its subsidiary organization American Virtue have in the past been notable less for their candidate training seminars than for their incendiary rhetoric and ties to out-and-out white nationalists. At a 2021 conference for American Virtue—then called the American Populist Union—attendees chanted the name of Nick Fuentes, the notorious antisemite and white nationalist Gen-Z podcaster. And when one of their favored 2022 House candidates, Washington’s Joe Kent, tried to disassociate himself from Fuentes last year, American Virtue director David Carlson brought him on American Virtue’s YouTube show to “set the record straight,” asking him whether he thought “white people are discriminated against in America today” and on what basis he found Fuentes “divisive.”

Heritage—which sponsors dozens of small political events a year—declined to comment to The Dispatch on the record about why it had decided to sponsor the Bull Moose Project. But Mike Howell, who directs Heritage’s Oversight Project and spoke at the Bull Moose summit, tweeted ahead of the event about why he was excited to participate: “It has drawn the ire of all the right people.” 

DeSantis Briefly Touts His New Abortion Law 

Heritage’s 50th anniversary event didn’t just feature piles of ideological repositioning—it had some notable political moments too. On Friday afternoon, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave the conference’s keynote address, making the case for his conservative leadership in front of the crowd of policy wonks and donors—including a brief but notable mention of his most recent controversial action in Florida.

“We recently signed the heartbeat bill to protect life,” DeSantis said, squeezing the mention in the middle of a litany of new policy achievements near the end of his speech. (Intriguingly, a Twitter account associated with DeSantis’ political operation tweeted a short video clip of that single sentence later Friday afternoon.)

It was the first time DeSantis publicly acknowledged the law, which bans abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy, since signing it on April 13. As Michael Warren reported for The Dispatch last week, DeSantis’s reticence to defend the law—which puts Florida’s abortion restrictions in line with other Republican-led states such as Georgia and Ohio—has left some in the pro-life movement wondering what his approach to the issue would be as president.

“Is this an issue that motivates him? I don’t know,” Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life, told The Dispatch last week.

A close DeSantis ally in Florida, John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council, acknowledged that the governor does not always speak about abortion but defended DeSantis for delivering on pro-life goals in the state.

“I know that he doesn’t talk about it much. But he certainly acts,” Stemberger said. “I do think he’s trying to find his way to talk about the issue.”

In the first presidential election cycle since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision overturned the Roe v. Wade abortion status quo, pro-life Republican candidates will have to provide a policy framework that goes beyond the familiar pledge to make originalist judicial appointments. Candidates and would-be candidates have already begun to wade into some of the thorny questions, including whether there should be a new federal abortion restriction or a patchwork of different laws from state-to-state.

Former President Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, appears disinclined to push for a new national law, with a campaign spokesman telling the Washington Post that the Supreme Court “got it right when they ruled this is an issue that should be decided at the State level.” 

That statement, coming after multiple anonymous reports that Trump is telling aides he thinks abortion is a losing issue for his campaign, prompted the president of the leading pro-life organizations to make an ultimatum for GOP White House hopefuls. “We will oppose any presidential candidate who refuses to embrace at a minimum a 15-week national standard to stop painful late-term abortions while allowing states to enact further protections,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

Meanwhile, Nikki Haley is slated to address abortion at an event Tuesday in Arlington, Virginia—giving the former U.N. ambassador an opportunity to draw a contrast on the issue with Trump. 

Eyes on the Trail

  • Mastriano inching toward Senate run? Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania said in a Facebook Live video on Friday that he and his wife are “still working on an announcement or two in the near future,” fueling suspicions that he will soon announce plans to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in 2024. “We have some exciting news that we’re looking forward to sharing with you guys, hopefully soon,” said Mastriano, who lost Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race by 15 points in November to Democrat Josh Shapiro. “Just hammering out a few details before we go public on some of this.”
  • DeSantis-Trump war for Florida’s Republicans’ support: Eleven GOP congressmen from Florida have now endorsed Donald Trump’s 2024 bid, a potentially worrying sign for Ron DeSantis’ ability to shore up support from elected Republicans in his home state as he gears up to announce his long-anticipated presidential bid. Whereas some Trump endorsers have since begun lobbing personal shots at DeSantis amidst his struggle to win support from Sunshine State Republicans, others maintain that the decision to endorse Trump isn’t personal and that they still have a strong relationship with the governor. “I alerted them to the fact that I was going to do this,” Trump endorser and GOP Rep. Brian Mast told The Dispatch on Thursday. “He’s my governor. He’s my friend—very proud of him. No distance between us.”

Notable and Quotable

“I will give him more money and go without food.”

—Businessman and political donor Robert Bigelow, who has already given more than $20 million to pro-Ron DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, said in an interview with Time of his support for the Florida governor’s still unannounced 2024 presidential campaign

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.