Kevin Roberts has a plan. Earlier this month, Roberts replaced Kay Coles James as the seventh president of the Heritage Foundation, the influential half-century-old conservative think tank. Roberts wants to take that influence, normally aimed squarely at Capitol Hill, and project it out at the country it’s meant to serve.

The Washington Examiner sat down with Roberts during his first week to discuss these and other goals he has for the Heritage Foundation. Roberts is a Beltway outsider who received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas and went on to work as a professor for several years. Roberts left that tenure-track position, however, to found with his wife the John Paul the Great Academy, a K-12 Catholic liberal arts school in his home state of Louisiana. After seven years as headmaster, Roberts moved on to another educational administrative role, this time as president of Wyoming Catholic College. He served there from 2013 to 2016 and distinguished himself and his school by refusing to accept federal student loan dollars or grant funding — and the restrictive government mandates that come with them. His last stop before arriving at Heritage was with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is among the nation’s largest state-based think tanks and where he again served as president.

He credits Heritage as “the most important institution in helping me understand that I’m a conservative.” At the age of 13, as a student at Washington Irving Middle School in Springfield, Virginia, he was challenged by a civics teacher to back up his opinions on foreign policy. “It kind of angered me,” Roberts laughs, “but he was right, and I was wrong. And he turned me on to the Heritage Foundation, to his credit.” His interest piqued, the “13-year-old nerd” had his mother procure some research from the D.C. think tank. “Ever since then, the Heritage Foundation has been like my intellectual grandfather,” he says.

Though he had never considered he might one day work at the think tank, he had always considered himself “part of the extended family.” He was far from alone. “There are probably hundreds of thousands of people who could say that, actually,” Roberts notes. Unlike other think tanks, Heritage relies in large part on financial support from smaller-dollar donors across the country. Heritage began direct-mail fundraising in the late 1970s, under the foundation’s third president, Frank J. Walton; at the time, direct-mail was in its infancy for think tanks and constituted something of a risky move. Four decades and some change later, the foundation boasts more than half a million donors and members of the “extended family.”

Heritage’s grassroots makeup pairs quite well with the state-level, government-skeptical mindset that Roberts brings to his work. “It is the job of conservatives inside the Beltway to better connect with conservatives outside the Beltway,” he wrote earlier this month. Or, as he tells me, “Heritage’s mission is to get things done, and increasingly, we want to do so at the state and local level, and through Heritage Action as well as our own work at the Heritage Foundation. We want to provide the intellectual ammunition for that work to happen.”

Roberts cites education as a key policy area for this action strategy, both due to its importance and to the unprecedented political energy for education reform at the state level. Two specific issues of interest, he notes, are expanding educational choice through policy mechanisms such as charter schools, homeschooling, vouchers, and so on, and combating the scourge of “critical race theory” and other, related concepts and doctrines that push anti-American racial essentialism.

The parental pushback against such curricula was key to swinging Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election to Republican Glenn Youngkin and shows that such energy can be harnessed into electoral and policy changes and that scholars can indeed reach far outside the Beltway. On education alone, the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo and Cato’s Corey DeAngelis have become the proverbial “go-to guys” for drawing attention to and disseminating stories and developments in their respective areas, Rufo on CRT and DeAngelis on educational choice. They serve as clearinghouses for parental feedback, demonstrating the potential for institutional scholars to connect with the rest of the country.

Roberts shows palpable excitement at the prospect. When pressed on specific mechanisms for influencing state policy, he mentions the recent election integrity bill signed into law in Texas, which, in his capacity as head of TPPF, Roberts worked with both the Heritage Foundation and state policymakers to enact. His goal is for Heritage to serve in this type of facilitator role between policy intellectuals, local stakeholders, and state politicians in other places, as well.

Yet policies at the statehouse level often change (or don’t) based in large part on specific, idiosyncratic interpersonal relationships. Indeed, the bill passage in Texas Roberts championed utilized not only interpersonal relationships but also had the benefit of one of the largest and well-equipped state-level think tanks directly involved in the process. All of which shows the challenge of trying to scale up such an effort across the country. State-based entities such as TPPF do not exist in every state, nor do the specific relationships necessary to get things done beyond simply sending a one-page policy brief.

It will be interesting to see how Roberts and Heritage go about replicating policy wins in other states, particularly ones with fewer existing relationships between themselves and those on the ground, with less Republican electoral power, and with less national electoral significance. For his part, Roberts seems confident that he has a strong road map for doing so. He explained Heritage’s plan for an upcoming fight over school choice expansion in Texas, emphasizing that “Heritage is going to not only participate in that; we’re going to amplify it.” This includes proliferating foundation scholars’ work on educational choice, testifying in state and committee hearings, and mobilizing the organization’s roster of grassroots activists (called “Sentinels”) to move the needle in the state.

The Heritage Foundation has always filled an interesting role in the conservative think tank sphere. It was created in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner, with significant early funding coming from beer magnate Joseph Coors. Other right-wing think tanks existed at the time, principally the American Enterprise Institute (disclosure: I worked at AEI as an education policy researcher for several years prior to the Washington Examiner), but Heritage differentiated itself in a few key ways. The most significant of these was its insistence on not only policy creation but on advocating government to enact those policies. Thus, Heritage has always played a bit of a balancing act between thinking and advocacy, and it hasn’t always been a balancing act it pulled off.

Roberts's predecessor, Kay Coles James, was tapped to become Heritage’s president after the foundation’s board of trustees unexpectedly and unanimously voted to oust Jim DeMint from the role. Feulner had served as president for 37 years before he was replaced by DeMint in 2013. DeMint’s tenure at the Heritage Foundation was fractious and sometimes controversial (as was much of his time serving in the Senate and as a member of the Tea Party), much of it revolving around the methods of Heritage Action and DeMint’s embrace of President Donald Trump.

In 2010, Heritage Foundation spun up an aligned but legally separate sister entity, Heritage Action for America. Heritage Action is a 501(c)(4), which is a tax-exempt organization that, unlike 501(c)(3)s such as the Heritage Foundation, can pursue legislative lobbying as its primary activity without running the risk of losing its nonprofit status (these are technically classified as “social welfare organizations”). Heritage Action came about in the heyday of the Tea Party movement and saw as its mission “to hold [Republican] lawmakers accountable to their promises to advance conservative principles.”

It quickly garnered critics on Capitol Hill. “At the moment, there is no conservative group more disliked by House Republicans than Heritage Action,” wrote National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru back in 2011. “That enmity does not seem to worry Heritage Action, which is positioning itself as the bad cop among conservative activists. There is a detailed list of charges and counter-charges between Heritage Action and its Republican critics. Behind the back-and-forth is a question facing conservative activism: Is criticism of the current Republican leadership an effective method of advancing conservatism?”

Heritage Action’s “Conservative Scorecard,” which purports to grade lawmakers’ voting record on a percentage scale judged against “conservative principles,” has particularly rankled lawmakers over the years. In 2015, several House Republicans confronted then-Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint over the scorecard, which many GOP members complained was both unforgiving and subjective, often punishing votes and views that were entirely consistent with conservatism. “If you score Paul Ryan at a 66, none of us can live up to your standards. If you set an unachievable standard, it hurts our goals,” Georgia Rep. Austin Scott told Politico.

DeMint later chose, as did much of the conservative movement and the Republican Party, to align Heritage’s brand (though not all of its scholars or scholarship, it should be noted) with the Trump administration. Under Trump's presidency, Heritage found increased influence, including in shaping and shepherding some of the administration’s biggest policy wins.

James, though her tenure was short, helped to right the ship in many ways; every single source I spoke to had positive things to say about her administration and leadership. For three consecutive years following her arrival, Heritage was rated “the number 1 think tank in the world for its impact on public policy” by the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (perhaps the leading authority for such think tank rankings, though by no means dispositive). In this, it could be said, James’s tenure benefited from the often controversial moves taken under DeMint, akin to a new college coach winning all his games with players recruited by the last guy. But under her tenure, Heritage also improved yearly on rankings for “best managed.”

Thus, Roberts inherits a more steady Heritage at a time when its opportunities seem ripe. Yet there remain a great many pressing questions, in terms of policy and ideology, upon which conservatives and the Republican Party are increasingly split. Roberts acknowledges this, and it is another of his goals to have Heritage serve as a great facilitator of these debates and conversations. He notes (correctly, I’d say) that unsettled consensuses can allow for new, innovative thinking about old problems. Yet, as he lamented in National Review Online this month, “Conservatives need to stop shooting at one another and to remember that our common enemy is the radical Left in charge of the regime in Washington, D.C., today.” He echoed the same sentiment in our interview, pointing specifically to carping on Twitter and removing ourselves from face-to-face conversations undertaken with more seriousness and less posturing.

Roberts, for his part, seemed more interested in mobilizing Heritage Action and its Sentinels to states and localities in order to galvanize parents and voters behind better policy than pointing them at GOP centrists in Congress. One hopes this reflects an understanding that what constitutes a “conservative” policy is sometimes an open and engaging question, rather than some established partisan checklist. At the very least, it’s clear that Roberts has his eye on achieving conservative policy changes, and he has a plan for the Heritage Foundation to be an integral part of it.

Grant Addison is deputy editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.