Idaho Republican Raul Labrador’s bid for the No. 2 leadership spot in the U.S. House of Representatives, while facing long odds, gives the Tea Party movement what it wanted -- a candidate to replace Eric Cantor as majority leader.
Labrador, a 46-year-old lawyer serving just his second term, is the underdog in challenging Representative Kevin McCarthy of California for the job. McCarthy already is the No. 3 House Republican and moved rapidly to shore up support after Cantor announced on June 11 he would step down from the post.
McCarthy, 49, also was aided by House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to hold the election June 19, which has given opponents little time to try to weaken him.
Still, the Tea Party, the small-government political movement advocating a reduction in the U.S. national debt, was responsible for the sudden opening of one the most influential jobs in Washington by helping derail Cantor in Virginia’s June 10 primary. With Tea Party backed economics professor David Brat winning that contest, the movement’s supporters want one of their own in the leadership job Cantor decided to vacate as he serves out the remainder of his seventh House term.
“If the Republican Party ignores the message that was sent in Tuesday’s election, they do so at their own peril,” Republican Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican aligned with the Tea Party, said in an interview as he welcomed Labrador’s candidacy. “People want the process reformed in Washington D.C.”
Class of ’10
Labrador was first elected in 2010, when the Tea Party helped Republicans oust Democrats as the House’s majority. He has broken with the chamber’s Republican leadership team on some key issues -- including raising the government’s debt limit -- and was one of 12 Republicans who in January 2013 opposed a second speakership term for Boehner.
His campaign to replace Cantor was quickly endorsed by FreedomWorks, a Washington-based group that advocates for smaller government and contributes money to Tea-Party aligned candidates.
“Americans don’t believe their leaders in Washington are listening and now is the time to change that,” Labrador said in a statement announcing his bid.
Tea Party-aligned lawmakers in the House, unbound by fealty to the party’s leaders and unmoved by the usual tools of enforcing party discipline, aren’t a majority though they number enough within the Republican caucus to prevent one. Given that, they’ve often exercised out-sized influence, thwarting Boehner at times.
Now they’re attempting to use their influence to ascend into the highest ranks of House leadership. Still, the math that has helped the Tea Party block measures on the House floor isn’t as potent in Labrador’s race.
When a bill is up for a vote, Boehner can’t lose more than 16 votes among the 233 Republicans in the House, or he’ll need help from Democrats to get a measure approved. And when Boehner can’t command enough Republican votes, he jeopardizes his own standing.
The election for majority leader is decided only by Republicans, which means the winner needs 117 votes to claim the job. Massie has estimated that the Tea Party wing of the party includes about 80 House members, far short of a majority.
Some of McCarthy’s supporters, including Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, have said McCarthy already has enough pledges to win the race.
“It’s over,” McHenry said last week.
McCarthy’s appeal to his colleagues includes political and fundraising matters. McCarthy has proven his ability to recruit candidates and help them win races, skills Labrador hasn’t yet had a chance to display.
The majority leader’s job includes controlling the flow and scheduling of legislation on the House floor, and it’s a powerful position that can help open doors — and wallets — when it comes to raising money. Cantor, 51, used the position to raise millions of dollars for the Republican Party and individual candidates.
Massie said he and other Labrador supports would pitch lawmakers on fixing the way the House operates, and less on raising money.
“Ostensibly the job is to run the floor,” Massie said. “We need some reforms in the process in Congress and whether you are conservative or moderate, you have to recognize that the process is broken.”
He added that Labrador has a “David Brat’s chance of winning.”
Before last week’s primary, Brat was given little chance by other politicians or analysts of upsetting Cantor. He ended up winning, 56 percent to 44 percent.
Labrador opposed raising the nation’s debt limit and voted against the budget deal that ended a partial shutdown of the federal government last year.
As a lawyer he specialized in immigration cases, and in Congress was part of a bipartisan group of House lawmakers working on a revamp of U.S. immigration policy before quitting because of disagreements over whether undocumented immigrants seeking legal status should receive subsidized health benefits.
Labrador, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised by a single mother in Las Vegas, said he would help the party “address the growing challenges of immobility amongst the poor, insecurity in the middle class and stop protecting the special interests.”
He said that President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats “have had their chance and they have failed.” Republicans, he said, “must be willing to take these challenges head on with new leadership, fresh ideas, and a different approach.”
At age 13 Labrador joined the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he went on a two-year Mormon mission in Santiago, Chile. A graduate of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, he received a law degree from the University of Washington in Seattle and opened his own law practice in Boise, Idaho, his wife’s hometown.
Elected to the Idaho state legislature in 2006, he won recognition for his opposition in 2009 to Republican Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s unsuccessful proposal for a 7-cent fuel tax increase.
In 2010, after beating a Republican primary foe who had the backing of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Labrador won the support of grass-roots Tea Party organizations in the general election for Congress and defeated the incumbent Democrat, Walt Minnick, by almost 10 percentage points.
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