Capitol & State

Labrador enters governor’s race unfazed by uproar over health care remarks

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador says "nobody dies because they don't have access to health care"

On May 5, Congressman Raul Labrador told a crowd at a town hall in Lewiston that lack of access to health care doesn't kill people. The crowd erupted in boos and gasps.
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On May 5, Congressman Raul Labrador told a crowd at a town hall in Lewiston that lack of access to health care doesn't kill people. The crowd erupted in boos and gasps.

With three other Republicans already in the race for Idaho governor in 2018, why did Rep. Raúl Labrador wait so long to announce his own bid?

First, because he had to. And second, because he could.

But the context, as events unfolded this week, is probably not what he had in mind.

Labrador, re-elected for a fourth term in Congress that started in January, had to observe a respectable amount of time working in Washington, D.C., before making official the plans he has long thought to have harbored for the governor’s office. Just weeks ago, he repeated that he would wait at least through the first 100 days of the new government in Washington and make his announcement “sooner, not later.”

That announcement just didn’t come soon enough – or late enough.

Before last Friday, Labrador was on a roll of mostly good publicity for holding all-comers town hall meetings through his district. The audiences he faced mostly opposed his positions on everything from public lands to health care — especially health care. But he held his own and even won grudging praise from critics for at least being among the courageous few federal lawmakers — and the only one from Idaho — hosting open-invitation public meetings with constituents.

Rumors circulated last week that Labrador would break his silence and announce his candidacy this week, as early as Monday. That was before he told another town hall in Lewiston Friday that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”

Those comments, captured on video, quickly went viral, followed just as quickly by equally viral outrage. The reaction prompted Labrador to issue a statement the next day, saying his comment “wasn’t very elegant.”

“He was getting so much favorable publicity out of the earlier town hall meetings, and rightfully so,” said James Weatherby, emeritus professor of political science at Boise State University and longtime observer of state politics. “He’s the only member the congressional delegation who’s been out there and taken the slings and arrows from opponents of the Trump administration.”

But, Weatherby added, Labrador “had to feel at some point the need to get involved in this race, with all of these other candidates active.”

So he went ahead and made his candidacy official Tuesday, despite the recent rocky press. Labrador couldn’t officially campaign or raise funds until he filed the papers for the race. Other candidates have been running for almost a year.

Next year will see a governor’s race without an incumbent running for the first time since 2006. Weatherby said the Republican gubernatorial primary could be the most competitive since 1978, when Allan Larsen won a six-way race that included a young Butch Otter, who’s retiring after three terms.

Larsen lost the general election to Democrat John Evans. But times and political fault lines have changed in red-state Idaho since then, and the winner in the Republican primary is now the presumptive favorite in the general election. The 2014 Democratic nominee A.J. Balukoff has said he’s still deciding what he will do.

LEADING THE PACK

Labrador, who’s become a leading national conservative figure in Congress as a charter member of the House Freedom Caucus, enters the Republican governor’s race as the likely frontrunner, given his notoriety and name recognition. That’s why he had a little more luxury, in terms of timing, to announce his candidacy.

His three Republican opponents, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, Treasure Valley real estate developer Tommy Ahlquist and former Meridian State Sen. Russ Fulcher all were quick with statements Tuesday reacting to his entry.

For its part, the Labrador camp would not say anything Tuesday beyond the brief confirmation of his candidacy and a promise of a formal announcement “in the coming weeks.” His new campaign website, for now, is a placeholder.

Whatever flack Labrador took nationally for his comments in Lewiston Friday seems not to have influenced his timing on making the announcement, and that makes sense. There are fund-raising and other activities Labrador couldn’t do until he’d officially announced.

What’s more, voters in a closed Republican primary line up at the far-right end of the political spectrum. That’s to Labrador’s advantage anyway, especially in a crowded field that’s likely to see a lot of split votes, in a race where the winner might prevail with less than 30 percent of the total vote.

That more conservative bloc isn’t likely to be put off by Labrador’s controversial remarks on health care.

“They know we live in a ‘Gotcha!’ culture,” said Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, the Idaho House assistant majority leader and a Labrador supporter. “Primary election voters love Raúl Labrador. He has gone to Washington and said, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to fight for.’ And that’s what he’s done. I think he’s going to do very well.”

Bill Dentzer: 208-377-6438, @DentzerNews

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