Idaho’s Labrador forms tea party bloc

More media access among key goals

WASHINGTON – Freshman Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, dissatisfied with news coverage dominated by the top members of the House of Representatives, has put together a group of tea party-backed freshmen who are trying to influence how bloggers and traditional media are covering Congress.

Labrador, a Republican, has organized a group called Conversations with Conservatives that features firebrands of the House freshman class. They often aren’t happy with how the media portray them, and they’re trying to shape coverage by offering easy access to the press to ask them about anything.

Labrador said they were the rank and file whose voices could get lost in the news conferences that the Republican leadership held routinely. The freshman group has had two events so far, featuring a panel of about a dozen conservative lawmakers answering whatever questions the assembled media wanted to ask or that came in on Twitter from those watching live on the Internet.

“We’re just trying to make it something that is interesting for the media, because usually they don’t want to talk to a freshman. We wanted to make something that is interesting, that would attract people, but at the same time have the opportunity for us to raise issues,” Labrador said in an interview.

The group declares on news releases that it’s the “House’s champions of conservatism!”

It’s reached out to the media, making an extra effort to invite bloggers, and it’s generating coverage with quotes such as Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh declaring at this week’s event that “every day (Obama) is in the White House he is destroying what makes this country great.” That quote showed up on the websites of BusinessWeek, The Hill, RealClearPolitics and others.

Freshman Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp said he was eager to sign on as a co-chairman of Conversations with Conservatives when Labrador approached him about it. Huelskamp noted there are 89 freshman Republicans in the House, an unusually large number. The leadership hasn’t tried to silence them, he said, but having their own forum to talk directly to the media helps to prevent portrayals of the conservative wing based on assumptions or secondhand information.

“We do have an impact and are more than willing to speak out,” Huelskamp said.

The group is looking to expand, and not all its members are freshmen. This week’s Conversations with Conservatives brought a large turnout from the media, ranging from conservative bloggers to CNN cameras.

The event, in the House visitors’ center, was a convenient way for Capitol-based media to get quotes from several conservative lawmakers at once and gauge their positions. Some of the questioning, and most of the stories and blog posts that resulted from the event, focused on whether the conservative wing was excited about Mitt Romney as the presumed Republican presidential nominee. Several lawmakers responded that they were excited about beating President Barack Obama.

“Let me just tell you: If you’re not sure about wanting to support Mitt Romney, whether you’re liberal, whether you’re very conservative, you ought to be excited, because he’s been on your side at one time or another,” joked Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.

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