U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador became the lone remaining challenger to California Rep. Kevin McCarthy for the coveted House position Friday after other potential candidates, including Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, withdrew.
Labrador announced his plans late Friday morning ahead of a set of joint appearances in Boise with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., as both made their way to Moscow for the 2014 Idaho Republican Convention.
He couched his bid as an attempt to bring a different approach to "top-down" D.C. leadership.
"It's the leadership that makes every single decision, and we as members of Congress just have to abide by what the leadership tells us to do. And I think this is why I'm doing it," Labrador said.
The Washington Post and other media outlets said this week that Labrador was among a set of more conservative House of Representatives members searching for a candidate to present as an alternative to McCarthy. National sites such as Politico and Roll Call made Labrador a focus of speculation Thursday.
After his announcement, Labrador said that colleagues encouraged him to run. He rebuffed the foregone conclusion that he has little chance against the popular, well-organized and well-connected McCarthy - The Associated Press, for example, described Labrador's candidacy as a symbolic effort by the party's conservative wing.
"I didn't get into this thing just to send a message, I got into this to win," Labrador said. "I actually spent the last three days trying to convince Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to do this. So this isn't something that I wanted to do. They wouldn't step up. I decided that somebody needed to do it."
He said he doesn't see himself as the tea party alternative to McCarthy.
"Tea party is just a label; I think tea party is a movement," he said. "I consider myself the conservative alternative."
Labrador and McCarthy hope to fill the shoes of current Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who is resigning from his post effective July 31 after he lost in Tuesday's primary election. The House Republicans will vote on his replacement Thursday.
The tea party, a political movement advocating a reduction in the U.S. national debt, among other things, still has a shot at taking McCarthy's current leadership spot as majority whip. Yet the notion that Cantor's defeat might remake the upper ranks of the House Republican caucus faded as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, moved quickly this week to elevate his lieutenant, McCarthy.
That didn't sit well with some tea party lawmakers who made their disappointment clear, showing that tensions in Washington between the tea party and more centrist Republicans live on in the wake of Cantor's primary loss.
"The grass roots just removed our majority leader and we're going to replace him with someone who's part of the same system?" said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who is aligned with the tea party. "I don't think that's going to satisfy conservatives at home."
Labrador acknowledged that Hensarling, Jordan and Sessions all took a pass because of McCarthy's favored status. He referred to his own political background in Idaho, saying, "I think I've had some experiences with heavy favorites before."
Labrador was elected in 2010, first defeating favorite Vaughn Ward in the GOP primary and then unseating incumbent Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick.
During their time in Boise on Friday, Paul lauded Labrador's entry in the race while acknowledging him as an underdog.
"I think it's great for Idaho. I think it's also great for the grass roots in a sense," Paul said. "Everybody has their own idea of what message is being sent to Washington about leadership. But to me, it kind of is, maybe they want some new leadership from new faces, new people that haven't been in Washington so long but are part of and connected to the grass roots. I'm excited by it."
Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, Idaho's other congressman, is a close ally of Boehner's. He said Thursday that he's supporting McCarthy.
"Kevin has done a good job as whip and I don't think at this point - in June of an election year - that we need wholesale change," Simpson said.
That stance didn't change after Labrador's announcement Friday. Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts said the 2nd District congressman will honor his commitment to McCarthy.
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Nate Poppino: 377-6481
Bloomberg News contributed.