Never in American history has a congressman in just his second term in office been elected to a position of high leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Yet Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador tried it in 2014, launching a long-shot campaign for House majority leader – a campaign he ultimately lost to then-Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
A fractious tea party favorite and co-founder of the insurgent House Freedom Caucus, Labrador doesn’t care much for the traditions or norms of Congress. He speaks with contempt of politicians who see their job as “governing,” including compromising and deal-making.
Now seeking a fourth two-year term, he leads a faction pushing instead for fundamental change – even if it has to tear everything down to get it. And his group already has a big notch in its belt, having ousted House Speaker John Boehner.
“The reality is that there is a large segment of our conference that wants change,” Labrador said when he ran for majority leader. “I consider myself the conservative alternative.”
Jasper LiCalzi, chairman of the College of Idaho’s Department of Political Economy, likened Labrador’s appeal to that of presidential candidate Donald Trump. “Not playing by the rules, changing the way Washington works. I think that’s what they see. … They’ve got to really shake things up.”
But while shaking things up is possible, change is harder. The Freedom Caucus has roughly 40 members; the House has 435 members, 247 of them Republicans.
“The big problem is that if you don’t have the votes, you can’t change things. Especially in the House, it comes down to the votes,” LiCalzi said.
Defiant style of politics
Labrador has made a big splash for a relative newcomer in Washington, D.C., and is frequently quoted in the national news media. He’s also offered brash assessments of his own clout, saying he’s become the “go-to” member of Congress on immigration issues and claiming credit for a big drop in the federal deficit. “If I weren’t here, that wouldn’t be happening,” he told Idaho Public TV last fall.
Pushed by their tea party wing, House Republicans in 2013, including Labrador, refused to pass a federal budget unless it included defunding the Affordable Care Act or at least delaying it for a year. But neither the Senate nor President Barack Obama would go along with that. The standoff led to the highly unpopular and costly government shutdown, for which Republicans largely took the blame.
Last year, Labrador told the New Yorker that the GOP’s approval ratings quickly recovered after the shutdown.
“Within a couple of months, people forgot what happened,” he said. “We don’t want a shutdown, we don’t want a default on the debt, but when the other side knows that you’re unwilling to do it, you will always lose.”
Labrador’s defiant style of politics differs from that of Idaho’s only other representative in the House, fellow Republican Mike Simpson. The dentist and former state House speaker, now in his ninth term, has worked his way up to key positions on committees that allow him to protect Idaho institutions, punish federal agencies he sees as overstepping and steer much-sought federal resources to the state. A close friend of Boehner’s, Simpson also has earned a reputation as a tireless coalition-builder after his successful 15-year fight to pass new Idaho wilderness legislation this year.
Unlike the state’s two Republican senators, who speak proudly of their close working relationship and near-constant communication, Labrador and Simpson are locked in a public feud and haven’t spoken to each other for more than a year.
Simpson’s press secretary, Nikki Wallace, said the two aren’t on the same committees and don’t move in the same circles of friends.
“It’s not like it’s a decision to not speak to one another,” she said. “It’s just that there are not opportunities for them to do it, and they do not create them.”
Labrador has sponsored seven bills in the House in the past two years. Simpson was a co-sponsor on just one of them. Simpson has sponsored 13, and Labrador was a co-sponsor on only two of those.
“It’s problematic when your congressional delegation isn’t speaking to each other, and you only have two,” said Boise State University Professor Emeritus Jim Weatherby. “Historically, particularly on Idaho issues, members have worked together.”
LiCalzi said the two Idaho congressmen see their roles differently. Labrador, he said, “sees himself as kind of a representative of the Freedom Caucus, tea party types, things like that – that he’s bigger than just the 1st Congressional District of Idaho.”
Simpson, he said, “much more sees himself as a representative of Idaho.”
‘Not always predictable’
Labrador hasn’t hesitated to vote against funding for Idaho causes, including rural schools and the Idaho National Laboratory. His vote against funding the Secure Rural Schools program that many North Idaho school districts heavily rely on kicked off his feud with Simpson last year. After Simpson said a congressman would “have to look long and hard to find a reason to vote no” on the bill, Labrador lashed out at Simpson in a radio interview, calling him a liar and “part of the establishment in Washington, D.C.”
“He doesn’t have to bring home the bacon here to Idaho that much, because he knows he’s in a safe seat,” LiCalzi said of Labrador. The heavily GOP district likely will re-elect Labrador as many times as he wants to run, he said.
Labrador’s vote totals have steadily increased since he defeated Rep. Walt Minnick, a moderate Democrat, in 2010 with 51 percent of the vote. Labrador was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote in 2012, and 65 percent in 2014.
His disdain for Washington’s political establishment complements his decision not to find a place to live there. Labrador sleeps in his congressional office and flies home to Idaho on weekends. That’s not so rare these days; an estimated 20 percent of House members do the same, including Speaker Paul Ryan.
Labrador’s legislative record shows he has evolved since his first two terms. Of the 291 bills he co-sponsored during those four years, more than three dozen sought to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act. About a dozen each dealt with immigration, veterans’ issues, abortion restrictions and limits on the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the past two years, Labrador has co-sponsored 115 bills, with the largest group aimed at restricting the EPA or other federal agencies. Nearly a dozen of his bills were aimed at criminal justice reform – a bipartisan issue on which Labrador is an outspoken proponent. On three of those bills, he was either the only Republican co-sponsor or one of just two, joining dozens of Democratic co-sponsors.
Labrador also co-sponsored 10 bills on government reform; nine on public lands; eight on gun rights; and five each on immigration and labor issues. More than half of the bills he co-sponsored had Democratic co-sponsors.
“Labrador is not always predictable,” Weatherby said. “His proposals on immigration and criminal justice reform reflect more of a problem-solving, pragmatic approach than one would expect from a high-profile leader of the ideological infighting within the House GOP caucus.”
None of the seven bills Labrador introduced in the past two years became law, but he did get a high-profile committee hearing and 172 co-sponsors for his First Amendment Defense Act, legislation to give new federal protections to those who say they oppose same-sex marriage on moral grounds.
And Labrador, a native of Puerto Rico, has been widely credited for crafting the final version of a bill he co-sponsored on resolving Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis. That bill passed and was signed into law just in time to beat a July 1 deadline, when the U.S. territory was set to default on $2 billion in debt payments.
Voted against bill he sponsored
One bill he sponsored in the previous Congress, to transfer 31 acres from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to Idaho County for a shooting range, passed in December 2014. Idaho’s two senators sponsored the Senate version of the measure. Portions of a grazing reform bill Labrador sponsored that year also passed. Ironically, Labrador voted no – he objected to the National Defense Authorization Act, to which the measures were attached as riders.
Labrador told constituents at a town meeting earlier this month that he’ll always stick to principle, even if it costs him votes.
The crowd was receptive.
“We need more people that are just upfront and truthful – there’s no flim-flam,” said Karin Slagle, of Eagle.
Rolland Saylor, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee from Eagle, said, “I’ve been proud of him because I think he has tried to stick with what he promised to do, and I don’t see many of them around the country really doing that.”
Labrador declined to be interviewed for this story, citing objections to an article The Spokesman-Review published about his legislative record in 2014.
He launched his own media forum, joining the Freedom Caucus with the conservative Heritage Foundation to hold monthly “Conversations with Conservatives” question-and-answer sessions. Labrador and other caucus members answer questions from political reporters and bloggers, and the reporters get a free lunch courtesy of the Heritage Foundation.
“He wants to get the message out in the way he wants, with no filter,” LiCalzi said.
He said that’s also likely why Labrador scheduled a series of mini-town hall meetings around the district during the summer recess. Labrador has 20 of those sessions planned through the first week of September, from the Chic-n-Chop in Bonners Ferry to the Marsing Rural Fire District.
Expected to run for governor
His background is unusual for an Idaho congressman. Labrador was raised by a single mother. When he was 13, she moved the family from Puerto Rico to Las Vegas, where he converted to the Mormon faith. He graduated from Brigham Young University and earned his law degree at the University of Washington.
He still is paying off student loans, and congressional financial disclosure reports show he’s the sixth-poorest member of Congress, with a negative net worth, excluding the value of his Idaho home, of $216,000.
Labrador and his wife, Becca, an Idahoan he met at BYU, have five children ranging in age from 13 to 24. He pays his wife $2,000 a month from his campaign to keep the campaign’s books. He defends the practice, saying she’s the “one I trust most in the world.” He also has said he once had an employee steal money from his law practice, so he’s “more than careful.”
He built his career as an immigration and criminal defense attorney, and served just two terms in the Idaho Legislature before winning his first term in Congress in 2010. Labrador upset an establishment favorite, Iraq veteran Vaughn Ward, in the GOP primary, then defeated Minnick in the general election.
There is widespread speculation that Labrador will run for governor in 2018, and he told Boise State Public Radio in February that he’s “been thinking about” a run. He added that he’s focusing for now on his bid for a fourth term in Congress, but said that after the November election he’ll “have to take serious consideration” about a possible gubernatorial bid.
Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little, also a Republican, already has announced his candidacy in that race.
“Little is going to be able to raise a lot of money, and he has a lot of people behind him,” LiCalzi said. “I don’t think it’d be a walkover for Labrador, that he definitely would win.”
If he wants to be governor, LiCalzi said, Labrador would have to rethink his approach to governing, like how Otter moderated after being a “firebrand” when he served in the state Legislature and Congress.
“(W)hen you become governor, hey, you’ve got to make things happen,” he said. “You can’t be just throwing Molotov cocktails around.”
LiCalzi said governors have to deal with such practical issues as how much money should go to schools and roads.
“If he doesn’t want to do ‘governing’ and making deals and compromising, he shouldn’t run for governor,” LiCalzi said.
Weatherby noted that Labrador hasn’t had a serious challenge since his first election.
Because of that, he said, “One could argue that Congressman Labrador is adequately representing the interests of Idaho’s 1st Congressional District voters.”
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