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Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador files to run for governor in 2018

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, shown at a Meridian, Idaho town hall in April in this file photo, said this week that Idaho’s government “needs to be slashed.” Labrador is among those seeking the GOP nomination for governor of Idaho in 2018. (Kyle Green / AP)

BOISE – Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador will run for governor in 2018, even as he’s in the midst of a national swirl of negative publicity over his recent comment that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.”

His remark, at a town hall meeting last week, drew jibes against Labrador on the late-night comedy shows Monday night and was rated “Pants On Fire” for falsity by Politifact on Tuesday morning.

Labrador, accompanied by his wife, Becca, and campaign treasurer Milford Terrell, signed the necessary forms and filed Tuesday to launch his gubernatorial campaign.

Labrador has been openly mulling a run for governor but has made no public announcement.

“I don’t think his public announcement will be for a while,” said Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. “What he told me was that he needed to do this so that he could start calling people and drumming up support.”

The filing is a necessary step for that, Denney noted. Until the initial filing is made, “You’re not supposed to raise any funds or expend any funds. You can do an exploratory type thing, but really you can’t raise money.”

In a statement about an hour after he filed, Labrador said, “Running for governor of the great state of Idaho takes serious preparation. To comply with both the spirit and the letter of the law, I have filed the appropriate campaign finance form required to register as a candidate for governor. I’ll be making a formal announcement in the coming weeks.”

There already are three other GOP candidates in the race for Idaho’s open 2018 gubernatorial contest, with third-term Gov. Butch Otter not seeking another term: Lt. Gov. Brad Little, former state Sen. Russ Fulcher, and Boise developer and physician Tommy Ahlquist. In addition, one Democrat, Troy Minton, and three independents, Lisa Marie, Michael Richardson and John Thomas Wiechec, also have filed.

Labrador, in his written statement, said, “Idaho needs a proven conservative leader who will stand against the special interests and politicians that have picked the winners and losers in our state Capitol for too long. Idaho needs a strong leader who will make government fair for everyone. Idaho needs a governor who will provide a new vision, a new approach and new leadership.”

His GOP rivals swiftly responded with statements of their own.

Little stressed his work in state government.

“Here in Idaho, we are leading the nation in job growth, we are in the top three for best places to own a business, and wages for Idahoans have been growing at twice the national average. Our conservative Republican leadership in Idaho is leading Idahoans into prosperity,” he said. “I would like to welcome Congressman Labrador back home to the place where we balance our budget and conservative ideals guide us each day. Idahoans, including myself, look forward to hearing from Congressman Labrador about the accomplishments he has made while being in Congress for over six years.”

Ahlquist, a physician and developer who is making his first run for public office and already has launched TV ads and a statewide campaign tour, pointed to his experience outside government.

“The congressman will bring his experience in Washington, D.C. to the race, and I am excited to continue sharing my conservative message of building an even better Idaho with a fresh approach and new ideas. I look forward to seeing the congressman on the campaign trail.”

Fulcher unsuccessfully challenged Otter in the GOP primary in 2014.

“In 2014, he endorsed me in my race for governor, stating he supported me because of my ‘political courage and fresh ideas.’ He said that I would ‘work to reduce our dependence on Washington D.C., make the tax code more competitive, reduce regulation, and give Idaho the chance to fulfill its promise.’ I suspect he still believes that.”

Labrador just completed a round of four town-hall meetings around the state, in the midst of which he voted in favor of the Republican health care bill that passed the House. Crowds of angry Idahoans packed the meetings and questioned Labrador about health care. He responded that he doesn’t believe health care is a basic right; he believes sick people should pay more for health insurance; and with his comment about nobody dying.

He later clarified that he meant to point to a federal law that requires emergency rooms to treat anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

It was an odd start to a bid for governor that Labrador has pondered for years. The outspoken fourth-term congressman, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, called a news conference in 2013 to announce that he wouldn’t run for governor in 2014, and instead would seek a third term in Congress, saying he wanted to “end all the speculation.”

On Monday night, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, discussing the reaction to his emotional on-air statement a week before about health care and his newborn son’s serious illness, said, “Maybe the worst person of all is a congressman named Raul Labrador from Idaho. This from a town hall meeting in Lewiston, Idaho. This is something he actually said,” Kimmel said, showing a clip of the nobody-dies comment. “And that’s a congressman, not a garbage man, that’s a congressman we have.”

Politifact, the fact-checking site, fact-checked Labrador’s nobody-dies comment, weighed his statement afterward clarifying it, watched the full seven-minute exchange between Labrador and a constituent, delved into academic papers published over the past decade and a half and interviewed experts. It concluded that Labrador’s statement scored the worst-possible rating on the site’s “Truth-o-Meter,” “Pants on Fire.”

“He’s getting a lot of unfavorable exposure nationally, in so many different media outlets,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University emeritus professor and longtime observer of Idaho politics. “This is not an auspicious time for him to make any public announcement, whether he planned to or not.”

However, Weatherby said, “He must feel a need to get on with other aspects of the campaign in terms of organizing support, contacting donors and seeking endorsements before a lot of those might be boxed out by some of the other candidates who are active in the field and have been for some time.”

More candidates still could enter the race – the primary election isn’t until May 2018.

“This is shaping up to be the most competitive race among heavyweights since the 1978 gubernatorial primary,” Weatherby said.

That year, six candidates – including current Gov. Butch Otter – vied for the GOP nomination for governor of Idaho, which was narrowly won by then-House Speaker Allen Larsen. He lost to Democrat John Evans in the general election.

Labrador is an immigration attorney and a former two-term state representative. A native of Puerto Rico, he and wife have five children.