With an eye on looming legislative battles over immigration, the Export-Import Bank and foreign policy, Niger Innis is on a mission to prove that the tea party is still a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill.
“Liberals and GOP political elites alike have simultaneously assailed the tea party movement as racist, radical, and now irrelevant,” Innis said in a July statement announcing that he is the new executive director of TheTeaParty.net, one of the country’s largest tea party organizations.
An African-American man raised in Harlem, Innis plans to prove those commentators wrong by promoting an inclusive message.
The tea party movement burst onto the scene in 2010 and, according to Innis, has been evolving over the past few years. "The tea party is maturing as a political movement," Innis wrote in a recent Roll Call commentary titled, "The Tea Party Grows Up."
“We went from activism in 2010 to more political engagement, running candidates, influencing candidates, getting people elected,” Innis told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview. “And now I think the third leg of the stool, if you will, is going to be truly impacting policy.”
Innis said he hopes to influence lawmakers by using both the wrath of the tea party and the resulting benefits from engaging its millions of energized supporters.
In other words, he plans to move lawmakers with“the stick” and motivate them with “the carrot.”
“People are familiar with ‘the stick’ of the tea party ... challenging incumbents, flooding the phone lines,” said Innis. “What they’re not so much familiar with, and what I want to expand, is ‘the carrot.’ So when a Mitch McConnell, or when a Republican caucus stands firm … we have to reward them.”
That reward involves informing TheTeaParty.net’s roughly 3 million social media followers when lawmakers support conservative policies. The group will also provide sympathetic members of Congress direct access to those millions of supporters.
“Use the vehicle and the access that we can give you,” Innis said, referring to lawmakers. “We can do an interview with you, you can write stories for our website or for our Facebook page.”
Just a few months ago, Innis was vying to be one of those legislators himself.
But Innis lost the Republican primary in Nevada’s 4th District in a race to challenge Democratic incumbent Steven Horsford. He said one of the reasons he joined the race was to expand the base of conservative voters.
Innis said the conservative movement has “been lost in American life and in particular among a lot of urban dwellers, among younger people, among millennials, among minorities.”
Prior to running for Congress, Innis worked as TheTeaParty.net’s chief strategist. He joined the group in late 2012 to work in minority outreach.
Innis was no stranger to politics or the spotlight. He is a frequent cable news contributor, having served as the national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the country’s oldest civil rights groups, which is run by his father, Roy Innis.
Innis managed his father’s ill-fated campaign for New York City mayor in 1993, which challenged then-incumbent Mayor David Dinkins in the primary. Although his father ran as a conservative Democrat, Innis has been a registered Republican since age 18.
“I was tea party years before there was an official tea party,” he said
But now, as a tea party leader, Innis will spearhead two major projects: “IRS Audit,” which aims to investigate and expose burdensome government regulations, and “Secure America Now,” which will promote conservative principles for an immigration overhaul.
While both of those projects will be ongoing, Innis said TheTeaParty.net will also be engaged in the debate over reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
The current authorization for the Ex-Im Bank, which guarantees loans and insures lines of credit for businesses looking to expand abroad, is set to expire at the end of September. A number of conservatives argue that authorization should be allowed to expire because it manipulates the market and only benefits large corporations. Innis and his fellow tea partyers agree.
“We’re against reauthorization,” said Innis, though he quickly added, “We are open to winding it down as opposed to cutting the umbilical cord. … We’re also open to dramatic reforms.”
“We’re going to flood the phone lines,” Innis said of the impending battle over the bank, though he noted that the first step is to educate the grass-roots supporters about the bank itself.
Innis also said the fight over the Ex-Im Bank plays into a broader mission for the tea party movement: attracting working class voters.
“This is part of a larger narrative,” he said, “which is that we’re the populists here.”
Innis also plans to work with Republican leadership in Congress and is optimistic that new Republican leaders in the House, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., will be more sympathetic to the tea party.
“I’m very hopeful. There’s been a very contentious relationship between us and leadership in the House,” Innis said, noting that Republicans should not dismiss the movement.
"One thing Republican leaders, regardless of whether they love us or they hate us, have got to understand is there’s no way in hell there will ever be another Republican president without the active engagement of the tea party masses and support of the tea party masses.”