Underdog Labrador in it to win it

Greg Nash

If the Republican establishment had its way, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) wouldn’t even be in Congress right now.

So as the two-term lawmaker challenges the heavy favorite, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), to become the next House majority leader, he finds himself in a familiar position as an underdog.

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An immigration attorney who was born to a single mother in Puerto Rico, Labrador, 46, defeated the GOP’s hand-picked candidate, Vaughn Ward, in a primary on his way to winning the Democratic-held Idaho seat in 2010.

He’s been a thorn in the side of the House leadership ever since.

Labrador refused to vote for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2013, and in an interview on Monday, he said the current GOP leadership team has made members “feel like they don’t matter.”

“Thankfully for me, I was able to come here very independently, because nobody believed that I could win,” Labrador told The Hill. “So the only people I owe anything to are my constituents back in Idaho, who supported me and worked very hard for me. It allows me to stay in tune with the people on the ground.”

Labrador jumped into the race to replace the defeated Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) after McCarthy’s team signaled it had locked up the 117 votes needed to win. By his own admission, the sophomore congressman had pushed other, more experienced conservatives like Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to challenge McCarthy instead. But when they declined and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) dropped his bid for the post, Labrador entered the race.

Even Labrador’s supporters acknowledge his campaign is a long shot; some have suggested it is more about sending McCarthy a message, ensuring that the Thursday election isn’t a coronation. 

“He’s getting into the race late, and someone in the whip’s office has a competitive advantage,” said FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe, who had publicly pushed for Labrador to run. “I think we all understand that.”

Kibbe said it is “important for a conservative to run” against McCarthy, whom he called “Eric Cantor’s mini-me.”

“Kevin McCarthy is almost an exact replica of Eric Cantor,” Kibbe said.

Labrador’s bid got off to an inauspicious start over the weekend when he served as chairman for the Idaho state party convention that disbanded before committee members could pick a party leader or agree on a platform.

Labrador is well-respected by other staunch conservatives in the GOP’s historic 2010 class, but his work last year with Democrats on an immigration reform bill has made him unacceptable to hard-line members like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who wrote on Twitter that he was still looking for a candidate that opposed “amnesty.”

Labrador has since criticized efforts to overhaul the immigration system under President Obama after withdrawing from a bipartisan House negotiating team a year ago.

Democrats in the group praised him as a straight shooter and knowledgeable on policy, but complained that he frequently threatened to leave the group if he didn’t get his way.

While more than two dozen members are publicly supporting McCarthy ahead of the secret-ballot election, just a few have come out for Labrador, according to The Hill’s informal whip list: Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).

Other members making calls on Labrador’s behalf are said to include Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).

Labrador wouldn’t say how many supporters he had, although a source in his camp said he had gotten a number of commitments over the weekend, including from members who told him they were switching their support from McCarthy.

“I won’t be sharing numbers. I’m not going to play that game,” Labrador said.

He insisted his candidacy was more than a symbolic challenge.

“I’m not doing this as a protest. I’m doing this to win,” Labrador said. “I think we have an opportunity to change the conference right now. Everyone who has complained about leadership for the last four years has a clear opportunity on Thursday to send a message to leadership that business as usual is not good enough.”

“I’m not doing this just because I like spending Mondays in Washington when everybody else is home,” Labrador added.

Labrador also wouldn’t say whom he would support for majority whip among the three declared candidates: Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.).

While McCarthy has yet to publicly comment on his own candidacy, Labrador sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to members on Monday evening and planned to release a list of specific pledges on Tuesday.

They include a promise to make legislation public for a full 72 hours before a floor vote, rather than the current “three-day rule” that in practice mandates that a bill could receive a vote just over 24 hours after it is posted online.

In his letter, Labrador acknowledged that McCarthy had a head start but asked Republicans to “pause” and consider him for the job. He wrote that the message from Cantor’s defeat was clear: “Americans are looking for a change in the status quo.”

“Promoting, by acclamation, a member of the very Washington establishment that has failed to bridge the divide with Republicans outside Washington struck me as exactly the wrong response,” Labrador wrote. “And so, I have decided to stand for majority leader — running not against anyone, but for everyone.

“The simple fact is,” he continued, “Republicans will never again unite the country until we first unite our party.”

A Labrador victory would set up an awkward partnership with Boehner, a leader Labrador has frequently criticized. He has predicted Boehner won’t run again for Speaker in the next Congress, despite Boehner’s repeated pledges that he will.

Labrador said he has told members that he will not run for Speaker after the November elections regardless of whether he wins the majority leader’s race.

“One thing I’ve always appreciated about Speaker Boehner is that he doesn’t take things personally,” he said. “We have been able to work together after I refused to vote for him, and we will be able to work together even better now. So I don’t have any concerns.”

Boehner is publicly neutral in the race, but his allies are backing McCarthy.