America's Top Conservative Funder Died Last Week. What Does That Mean for the Right?

Yes, there are conservative funders who have deeper pockets than Richard Mellon Scaife ever had, and certainly donors who've been in the news more lately (think the Kochs on both counts), but Scaife stands as the pivotal figure in the rise of modern conservative philanthropy starting in the 1970s. 

It's hard to think of a better example of high-impact giving than the way right-wing funders helped to reshape public policy over the past four decades. A relatively small group of very strategic funders moved America to the right on any number of issues, including tax policy, welfare, education, housing, judicial theory and many more. 

Scaife operated right at the center of that movement, mobilizing the wealth of three family foundations created by a banking and oil fortune to build a conservative policy infrastructure that previously didn't exist. In turn, those investments helped to leverage and attract huge additional funds. 

Most famously, Scaife was a major early supporter of the Heritage Foundation, which was established in 1973 and has since raised and spent over $1 billion to push conservative policies on nearly every issue that Congress works on. Scaife was still on Heritage's board when he died last week at the age of 82. 

But Heritage was just one of many organizations that Scaife helped to bankroll and bring to scale. Of course, Scaife also funded the investigative journalism that led to Paula Jones's lawsuit, Bill Clinton's impeachment, and—arguably, as a result—George W. Bush's narrow victory in the 2000 election. 

Scaife's foundations were still going strong in recent years, as we reported just a few weeks ago.

The biggest of Scaife's foundations, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, doled out $13.4 million in 2012 to a wide range of universities, think tanks, and advocacy organizations. Indeed, it's hard to think of a conservative policy group that didn't get something from this funder.

So what happens now that Scaife is gone? That's a good question, and one surely on the minds of the many conservative groups that have counted on general operating support from Scaife's foundations for years. 

Our bet is that it will be business as usual at the three foundations. While Scaife's children, Jennie and David, don't appear to share their father's right-wing politics, they have their own family foundations and neither served on the boards of their father's foundations as of 2012. Among the trustees of the Sarah Scaife Foundation is Edwin Feulner, a co-founder and former CEO of the Heritage Foundation. 

Who knows what lurks in the trust documents related to one of the older family fortunes around? Or what obscure clauses might now take effect with Scaife's death? But, really, that may not matter all that much since Scaife had huge resources outside his foundations. Remember, the guy was a billionaire with a net worth estimated by Forbes in 2013 at $1.4 billion, and we very much doubt that half of this money is now heading to the IRS.

So our prediction: In the coming year, we'll see substantial bequests to conservative organizations and major infusions of cash to one or all of the three foundations that Scaife controlled. In other words, even bigger Scaife money may flow to conservative causes after his death than during his life.