Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador: GOP's D.C. hopes at risk

The Idahoan says electing him House majority leader would send the right reform message to voters.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comJune 19, 2014 

Rep. Raul Labrador, right, walks through a basement corridor on Capitol Hill to a meeting of the House Republican Conference, where he made his pitch for a leadership position. At left is Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Cunnington.

J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE — AP

What happens Thursday afternoon?

That's when Congressman Raul Labrador will learn whether he'll become the No. 2 Republican leader in the U.S. House after just 3 1/2 years in office.

Can he win?

Washington insiders suggest that Labrador's attempt to jump the leadership ladder has little chance when 233 Republicans meet to vote behind closed doors at noon Mountain time.

Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican, hasn't talked to reporters but is said to have privately claimed last week that he'd locked up the race. The Californian's lieutenants have been dismissive of Labrador's strategy, which has included appearances with conservative talk-show hosts Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Hugh Hewitt.

"If you're talking to the media, you're really not talking to the people you need to be talking to," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

How does Labrador respond?

He said he has been working the phones. And he called a Washington Examiner story about him ordering staff to solicit colleagues' cellphone numbers a "hit piece" planted by McCarthy allies.

"I had about two-thirds of the phones and I said, 'Hey, I'm missing some, can you get those for me?' " Labrador told the Statesman on Wednesday. "It's funny to be attacked about going to the media when they have been going to the media, too."

A favorite of "Meet the Press" and other Sunday news shows, Labrador said he judiciously employed pundits - just as Dave Brat did in shocking outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor in last week's Virginia primary.

"McCarthy's not as good as I am with the media, so I can respect him for not going to the media," Labrador said. "But I've spent most of my time talking to individuals on the phone. I've been calling till 11 o'clock at night for the last couple of days."

What's Labrador's pitch?

In a private speech to colleagues on Wednesday, Labrador said Republicans risk fumbling a chance to win control of the Senate in November if leaders don't appeal to voters hungry for reform and alienated by heavy-handed leadership.

"If you vote for the status quo tomorrow, you will prove that we are still not listening," Labrador said in the text released by his office. "We will break our pledge and with that we may lose the ability to regain control of the Senate and eventually win the presidency."

In the interview, Labrador said, "There's an angst out there that people are not being listened to - that the people at the top determine what the outcome should be without allowing for a fair process.

"Me winning would be sending a message that we're listening. But I don't want to be that presumptuous that that's the only way. We do have four months to let the American people know we're hearing the message."

What does Labrador say about Cantor?

Cantor - the leader he was closest to - spent too little time with constituents and relied too heavily on pollsters and consultants, Labrador said.

"I don't do very many polls and my pulse of what's happening in Idaho is about as accurate as anyone's," Labrador said. "I go to my kids' football games and basketball games, I go to the grocery store and talk to people in line. I don't need a pollster to tell me what Idahoans believe. I actually know what they believe because they tell me themselves."

Did the Idaho GOP convention fiasco hurt?

Labrador's chairmanship of last week's convention - adjourned without completing any business - is cited by opponents as a measure of his unfitness for setting the agenda in the U.S. House.

But he said it's been a nonissue among colleagues. "I think people understand what conventions are like, they understand they're rowdy," he said.

Labrador said he didn't consider withdrawing as chairman to stay in Washington and campaign. "Good leadership is actually being there in the arena trying to solve a problem," he said. "I care more about Idaho than anything else."

Labrador's former seatmate in the Idaho Legislature, Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, was quoted widely for his critique, including by The Washington Post and Labrador's November opponent, Democratic state Rep. Shirley Ringo.

Winder blamed the "ultra-ultra-conservative tea party-libertarian type people" and said there "really wasn't any floor leadership" or "fairness in the process... It's kind of 'who's going to have the power,' rather than working together."

Replied Labrador: "Chuck is a very good man and I understand why he's frustrated."

What did Ringo say?

In a fundraising email, she said: "Idaho families don't need a national spokesman for the tea party as their congressman. We need a voice of reason."

Does he regret the rhetoric of his friends?

FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe, which supports tea party groups, urged Labrador to run. But his characterization of McCarthy as "Eric Cantor's Mini-Me" was unwelcome.

"I did not appreciate that," Labrador said.

At the Idaho GOP convention, Credentials Committee Co-chairman Chuck Reitz, a Labrador ally from Shoshone County, told women delegates, "Just hold on, take a breath and go and refresh your lipstick."

"You know," Labrador said, "I think people said things that they shouldn't have said on both sides."

Bonneville County Chairman Doyle Beck said he won't support Gov. Otter's re-election over Democrat A.J. Balukoff, saying Otter has "joined the party of corporate cronyism."

"It would be an absolute disaster for us to have even one term of A.J. Balukoff," Labrador said.

Is Labrador going for broke?

Though Labrador said some GOP dissenters fear punishment from leadership, he's unafraid: "People want to control others in politics and I'm just not easily manipulated."

Labrador said a move many call risky isn't a clue that he's not long for the U.S. House.

"I've had numerous people say, 'Somebody needed to do it and you were the only one who was willing to stand up,' " Labrador said. "I think I've only become stronger in the (Republican) conference."

What's his prediction?

"I think (Thursday) is going to be a good day," Labrador said. "Obviously, I'm not going to be shocked either way. It's an uphill climb and I think everybody realizes that. But the response I've received has been overwhelming."

Will Labrador make another run at leadership?

Thursday's vote will be revisited by the new GOP conference in November. Labrador has said he won't run against Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, but didn't rule out a second bite at the majority leader apple.

"I'm hoping to win, so I can talk to you about that after (the vote)," he said.

Labrador also aims to learn a vital piece of intelligence: the vote count.

"I hope I can find that out, but I don't know," he said.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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