In 2012, Raul Labrador waited until April before endorsing Mitt Romney for president. By then, Romney had rolled his GOP primary competition and was the party’s presumptive nominee.
This election, the second-term congressman from Idaho with the outsized national profile isn’t waiting for the first-act curtain to drop.
Labrador is backing Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the crowded race for the Republican presidential nomination and last week was named Paul’s Western states campaign chairman. The two were first elected to Congress in 2010 and both appeal, in Paul’s words, to “people who are not only upset about big government, but also about big-government Republicans.”
“He and I are good friends,” Paul told the Statesman on Thursday, from a campaign swing through Iowa. “I think we see the world in similar fashion.”
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What Labrador brings to Paul’s effort, in addition to western roots and rising national prominence, is his appeal with libertarian-leaning conservatives and his ability to articulate the smaller-is-better case on government.
Labrador also pulls the Hispanic community and the LDS church. Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona, in that order, are the most Mormon states in the country by percentage, and church members are overwhelmingly Republican — 3-1 over Democrats, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center.
WESTERN BONA FIDES
Born in Puerto Rico, Labrador moved to Las Vegas as a child, graduating from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. Paul said he embodies many of the “commonalities” embraced by people in the West.
“People went west to be free of big government,” Paul said. “They went west because they were independent. They went west because sometimes their religion was persecuted.”
The consensus of early polling in the crowded GOP presidential race has Paul running fifth with about 9 percent. He trails Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (15 percent), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (13 percent), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (10.5 percent) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (10.2 percent). Paul leads 10 other potential or announced candidates, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Recent national polling and analysis shows Paul’s appeal ebbing somewhat over the past year as he has sought to broaden his resume and appeal to mainstream Republicans. He has moderated his isolationist leanings on foreign policy to bolster his credentials with the GOP establishment.
At the same time, Paul has gone all-in on opposing extension of the Patriot Act, which expires today, over its broad citizen surveillance. Among those who have praised Paul’s stand: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Labrador acknowledged an “inherent risk” in committing to a candidate so early in the cycle, but said he “waited too long” in 2012, which limited his influence.
“I kind of waited to the end,” Labrador said. This year, he said, “I saw this huge group of people that are running for president, and there’s a lot of really good ones. In fact, for the first time in my adult life I’m excited about more than one person.”
Paul, he said, was the candidate “who most closely reflected the values of Idaho and the West and could really appeal to a lot of new people, which is what we’re going to need if we’re going to win the election.”
Labrador and Paul said Labrador would advise on issues and positioning and serve as the candidate’s regional surrogate and representative. A Paul visit to Idaho is being planned.
“There are two areas where people are concerned about (Paul),” Labrador said. “They don’t think he can beat Hillary (Clinton). But he’s the one who’s performing the best right now against Hillary in some of the blue states.”
The second area is foreign policy, Labrador said. Paul embraces a “peace through strength” deterrence strategy over direct intervention.
If Paul’s candidacy falters in the primaries, Labrador said, he would be “100 percent supportive” of the eventual Republican nominee.
“I’m going to be very excited to support whoever the candidate is,” he said.
Paul has endorsements from about a dozen current and former members of Congress, most prominent among them fellow Kentucky senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The rest of Idaho’s congressional delegation, Rep. Mike Simpson and Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, said last week they had not yet picked a candidate to support. Risch, through a spokeswoman, said it was “much too soon to tell” when he would.
Crapo, up for re-election in 2016, said he was “primarily interested in just watching and working with all of (the candidates) to try to get through this primary process.”
“I am not one of those who’s worried about the fact that we have a number of candidates in a very robust primary,” he said. “At this point there are a number of them that I really like.”