New Member of the Week: Tea Party-backed Labrador unfazed by success

For the Boise Tea Party to endorse Raúl Labrador in 2010, the now-freshman congressman had to agree to a few specifics: no more earmarks, no more Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and no more American involvement in the United Nations.

Labrador also backed the flat tax, the gold standard and the election of senators by state legislatures. Only his opposition to federal term limits denied him a perfect score.

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This idiosyncratic set of conservative stances did more to predict the outcome of Labrador’s race than the bets of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce combined, all of which endorsed his GOP primary opponent, Vaughn Ward, or, in the Chamber’s case, Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick in the general election.

Even with weak fundraising and few endorsements, Labrador beat Minnick by 10 points and, in the process, made Idaho an all-Republican congressional delegation.

To hear him talk about it, his surprise wins should have been no surprise at all.

“It was never going to shock me,” he said, describing his primary victory over Ward, a GOP-designated “Young Gun” and Palin favorite. “I never would have gotten into a race if I thought I was going to lose. The message … I knew it would be successful.”

As a former immigration lawyer and practicing Mormon, the Puerto-Rican born Labrador represents more within the House GOP than ideological renewal.

In Idaho, where he served two terms in the State Legislature, he’s known, according to one reporter, for his mix of “guts and smarts.” But his chief achievements, like beating back GOP Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed tax hikes on fuel in 2009, left some wondering about his tact.

“He made it viscerally personal,” said Mark Dunham of Idaho’s Associated General Contractors, which backed Minnick, a centrist, in 2010. “He stood up on the floor and singled out my members.”

“[He] said stuff he shouldn’t have said,” Idaho state House Republican leader Mike Moyle said of Labrador in October. “I think you see him now playing with the boys in the sandbox.”

The controversy meant that Labrador, while earning the respect of Idaho conservatives, alienated business interests that went on to support Ward or Minnick. (Notably, Labrador has already received donations for his reelection from the U.S. Chamber.)

Unhappy in endorsements, Labrador didn’t even have unified Tea Party support until weeks before the election. The national Tea Party Express initially supported Minnick, and didn’t retract in favor of Labrador until late October.

Today, however, he speaks about the election as a matter of practical consensus.

“This was about the fiscal conservatives, the social conservatives, the liberty conservatives coming together,” he says. “All the Tea Party is is the old Reagan coalition. After the ’80s it was the ‘silent majority,’ then the ‘moral majority’ — the same people frustrated at the growth of government spending. They’re the groups that would normally remain silent.”

His thoughts on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) prediction that the Tea Party will disappear when the economy improves?

“I’m surprised that anybody is listening to Harry Reid at this point,” he said.

Labrador’s profile has grown since he took office as a relative unknown. He now serves as vice chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations.

He also has been a vocal supporter of Raymond Davis, the U.S. official now detained in Pakistan on murder charges, and before making headlines for a “birther” joke about President Obama at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Labrador appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in a discussion about political rhetoric following the January shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

The record shows that he was among the eight freshmen who helped derail extending provisions of the Patriot Act on Feb. 8, a vote for which he says he’s received no reprimand.

“I don’t see any member of the leadership, or any Republican, talking down to the Tea Party that much,” he said. “There really is no tension between us and the leadership. I keep reading about it in media accounts, and I’m just not seeing any of it.”

Even so, his gamesmanship means that he doesn’t resist opportunities for wisecracks.

Softening his tone toward House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom he criticized on the campaign trail, Labrador joked at CPAC that he and fellow freshman Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Allen West (R-Fla.) represented the “three shades of the Republican Party.”

“Now, if only Speaker Boehner was here, you could see the fourth,” he said.