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Labrador joins GOP’s ‘Young Guns’ after all

BOISE - Idaho GOP congressional candidate Raul Labrador has ended an awkward dance with the National Republican Congressional Committee by agreeing to join its “Young Guns” candidate recruitment program, after refusing earlier.

“With the election coming so quickly, I don’t want the NRCC changing our campaign themes and strategy,” Labrador declared. “My campaign will reflect Idaho values, not the priorities of Washington, D.C.” But, he said, “After being assured they would not interfere with our campaign’s Idaho-focused strategy, I agreed to participate.”

The NRCC on Friday named Labrador to its “On the Radar” status, the first of three tiers in the candidate recruitment program. His GOP primary opponent, Vaughn Ward, was at the program’s top tier and was heavily backed by the NRCC before Labrador upset him in the May primary election.

Labrador’s shift in position on the national program came amid something of a rough week for the GOP challenger, who saw incumbent Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick endorsed by the Associated General Contractors, an influential business group that usually backs Republicans, and who moved his campaign headquarters outside the 1st Congressional District and into state GOP campaign headquarters to “conserve resources.”

Spokeswoman China Gum said Monday, “When he’s elected, his congressional office will be in the district.”

Labrador’s initial concerns about the national GOP candidate program are consistent with statements he’s made about other traditional GOP supporters, from deriding the contractors’ group as tax-raisers after its endorsement of Minnick to declaring that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which also endorsed Minnick, has a “big-government tilt.”

“I think I’m critical of business as usual,” Labrador said Monday. “I think if you talk to individuals throughout the state about what their fears and their concerns are, every one of them will tell you that they don’t like the way things are being done in Washington, D.C.”

Joanna Burgos, NRCC spokeswoman, said Labrador told the national group months ago that he’d decided to “opt out” of the “Young Guns” program, though it offers help with fundraising and more. “Sometimes when people are in a primary they don’t want to be a part of the program, because some of their other opponents are,” she said. “We’ve seen that in a couple of places. But sometimes, every person in the primary wants to do it. There’s some primaries where we’ve got three people all running for the same seat, all at the same level or different levels in the program.”

There are currently 124 GOP congressional candidates in the recruitment program, including 40 who’ve made the top tier by meeting fundraising, voter contact and outreach benchmarks. “It’s all facets of a campaign,” Burgos said.

Minnick said it’s immaterial whether Labrador’s formally in the program or not. “He’s clearly seeking the help of people in Washington as well as in Idaho,” Minnick said, noting that Minnick’s GOP colleagues in Idaho’s congressional delegation recently hosted a Washington, D.C. fundraiser for Labrador. “I don’t know it makes much difference whether he’s a formal part of the program or not - he’s clearly seeking the help of Congressman (John) Boehner and (GOP) Chairman (Michael) Steele, and if I can believe press reports, I think he’s getting it.”

Minnick, who defeated one-term GOP Rep. Bill Sali in 2008, has made his mark as a conservative “blue dog” Democrat, but Labrador’s focused on trying to tie him to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As of the last campaign finance report, Minnick had a million-dollar edge in campaign cash.

“I’m hopeful that voters of Idaho will conclude, based upon my voting record and my background, that I better represent their views than does Mr. Labrador,” Minnick said.

Minnick is a former timber products CEO; Labrador is an attorney and two-term Idaho state representative who made his name opposing his own party’s governor, Butch Otter, when Otter unsuccessfully proposed gas tax and vehicle registration fee hikes two years ago to address a road-maintenance backlog.

Labrador said, “I think my message, not just throughout this congressional race but throughout my legislative career, has been that we need to listen to the individuals, to the small business owners, to the families that are struggling to just put food on the table.”