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Drew Cline: Dan Innis is no political lightweight

June 25. 2014 10:46PM
Congressional candidate Dan Innis, on leave from position as dean of UNH business school, during an interview at the Union Leader on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

As dean of the business school at the University of New Hampshire, Dan Innis raised tens of millions of dollars — including $25 million from alumnus Peter T. Paul, after whom the school is now named — for a new building. Some people did not think it could be done, but Innis led the campaign that achieved the largest gift in UNH history. Doing the same thing for his congressional campaign has proved, well, tricky.

Innis, a business owner (formerly of the Ale House Inn, now of Hotel Portsmouth) and professor of marketing, is finding that selling one’s self to voters is not the same as selling a service to customers. As of the end of March, when the most recent Federal Election Commission filings end, Innis had raised $167,000, less than half of what his primary rival, former U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, had raised, and a fraction of U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s $736,000.

Paul, who gave the $25 million to the UNH school of business when Innis was dean, is funding a super PAC that backs Innis, and it already has produced and aired one Innis TV ad, something Innis does not have the money for.

Innis’ comparatively low level of fundraising reflects neither the candidate’s energy level, which is high, nor his comfort with asking for money. It more likely reflects his status as a little-known Republican who has few contacts within the party or the broader conservative movement in New Hampshire.

Innis, a strategic thinker, understands his challenge.

“I haven’t been active in the party,” he concedes. “When you’re a dean at a state-funded business school, you can’t be that active.”

But he calls himself a “free-market conservative,” and he has a plan for winning the primary despite being less well-known than Guinta. Asked to sum up his message in a quick slogan, he says: “New ideas, new solutions.”

In what appears to be shaping up as a wave Republican year, with the wave swelled by an anti-Washington, anti-establishment anger, Innis brings a message of reform.

“Washington is broken,” he tells potential voters. And he wants to fix it by focusing on three big changes. By reforming the federal budgeting process, the tax code and the regulatory system, Innis says Congress can revitalize the economy. He speaks with the passion of a business owner and the vocabulary of a professor.

If Republicans in the 1st District expect to hear a squishy, Rockefeller Republican message from Dan Innis because he is an openly gay academic, they will be surprised when they hear the passion with which he talks about liberating the economy from government constraints. On economic issues, Innis talks like a Tea Partier railing against crony capitalism and Chamber of Commerce Republicanism.

“My first memory of politics was Nixon’s price controls,” Innis said. Though only a boy, he could not make sense of the policy, he said. As he became more interested in business, he became more interested in politics. There was too much of the latter in the former. Now, he says, regulations and taxes are so burdensome that they are discouraging entrepreneurship.

Though economics is his focus, get him away from that and he is not lost. He opposes amnesty for illegal aliens and says that no one who moved here illegally should qualify for citizenship. On abortion, he is pro-choice but favors parental notification and a ban after 20 weeks. Many first-time candidates who enter politics because of one pet issue fail to inform themselves about other issues. Innis is not one of them. Not surprisingly for an academic, he has done his homework.

Many news stories say Innis resigned from UNH to run for Congress. He did not; he is on leave. If he does not win election, he can return as a professor, though he gave up his position as dean. But he does not plan to go back.

Asked where he sees himself in 10 years, he says, “In Congress, probably winding up my last term.” (He pledges to serve no more than 12 years if elected, and he says he has no ambition to run for Senate or governor or any other high office.)

To avoid returning to Durham, Innis plans to continue campaigning full time, when he is not on the phone raising money, which is necessary to pay for his full-time campaigning. He will have to do a lot of both if he is to catch the better-known and better-funded Guinta, who is spending his time campaigning against Shea-Porter, not Innis. But who knows? Maybe it is a “throw the bums out” year, as Innis says, and voters will find him to be refreshingly not bummy.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His column runs on Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewhampshire.

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