Raul Labrador was little more than an outspoken backbencher the day Eric Cantor lost his primary. The Idaho Republican held outsized influence inside Washington on immigration, thanks to his Puerto Rican heritage, bilingual skills, and experience as an immigration attorney. But beyond the Capitol, he was mostly unknown.
Much has changed in two weeks.
While Labrador lost his campaign against Kevin McCarthy to become House majority leader, the second-term lawmaker won himself a larger following in the conservative movement — and a higher profile in the national political conversation, especially among Republican opinion leaders. He chatted with influential conservative voices, such as Sean Hannity, Hugh Hewitt, and Mark Levin. He won endorsement from such tea-party groups as Freedomworks and the Campaign for Liberty. And for one week his name was ubiquitous in conservative-friendly media outlets, ranging from Fox News to The Daily Caller to Breitbart.com.
"Imagine a Puerto Rico-born son of a single mom being asked about the 1 percent; a former Mormon missionary who's worked in the slums of Chile talking about religious liberty; a parent of five talking about the challenges of paying for college or raising kids in this culture; a guy from the West talking about the federal intrusion of states' rights," Hewitt, a nationally syndicated radio host with a huge following, said in a June 13 conversation with Charles Krauthammer, the eminently conservative Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor.
Hewitt concluded: "I think Raul Labrador as the GOP House leader would be the boldest, best political stroke in a generation."
A majority of the conference disagreed, but that doesn't mean they don't see the significance of Labrador's attempt.
"John Boehner knows something about winning and losing leadership elections. You don't have to win every time to have influence," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a veteran lawmaker and close ally of Boehner and the current leadership team. "So I think this definitely enhanced his influence — and it also showed some guts."
Labrador isn't going to become the next majority leader. But colleagues say the relationships he discovered while running a long-shot campaign against McCarthy — and the exposure he earned beyond Capitol Hill — have elevated his stature and positioned him for future political maneuvers.
"He got a chance to talk to everybody in the conference. And we don't have many communicators in our conference as good as Raul," Cole said. "Even when I disagree with him, he can almost talk me into his point of view. He's very, very persuasive. I think he's a brilliantly talented guy with enormous potential. And I think more people got to see that over the course of the campaign."
Indeed, by all accounts Labrador's candidacy left a universally positive impression on his colleagues. Of course, the Labrador of the last three weeks — charming, collegial — isn't the firebrand insurgent that some lawmakers have become accustomed to. They know him better for railing against leadership behind closed doors; for being one of 12 Republicans who refused to back Boehner's reelection for speaker; and for joining — then later quitting — a bipartisan House group working to craft an immigration overhaul. These and other anecdotes had earned Labrador the reputation of someone who, as one colleague put it, "walks around with his elbows out."
Labrador, to his credit, was aware of this caricature, and used the leadership race to set the record straight. He thinks he was successful in doing so; in fact, Labrador said one member he didn't know well before the campaign began calling other members on his behalf after they had a conversation of their own.
"I won't mention his name, but one guy started telling everybody: This is not the guy that we think he is,'" Labrador said.
To drive that point home, Labrador, known for his in-your-face style, ran a soft, cerebral campaign. He downplayed his known disdain for McCarthy; he projected a positive message of inclusiveness; and he was gracious in defeat, asking that McCarthy's victory count be recorded as unanimous. As icing on the cake, Labrador penned a concession letter to colleagues that still has them laughing.
Labrador wrote: "For those of you who voted for Kevin, thank you for your consideration. For those of you who said you were voting for me, thank you even more. And for those of you who actually did vote for me, thank you most of all!"
Labrador's humor may well have won over some critics, but nobody will mistake him for the class clown. He came to Congress carrying a chip on his shoulder, having been the underdog in both his primary and general-election contests. He always has been serious, and occasionally angry, when discussing the issue of immigration reform. He knows the policy dilemma facing lawmakers of both parties, and especially recognizes how it exacerbates the political problems of a GOP that's seen as homogenous and exclusive.
This has been, and continues to be, Labrador's opportunity to break through: by mastering the inside game that demands creative solutions to solve the Republicans' key policy crisis, while simultaneously working outside the Capitol to present the American electorate a diverse voice of modern conservatism. Biography is paramount in politics, as Hewitt alluded to, and there's no question that Labrador's appeal — and his potential — are tied to the fact that he has a compelling one.
"We've got a lot of folks who are always worried about what the party looks like, and his is a good face to have when you're trying to expand the party," Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said of Labrador.
There's no question that Labrador sees himself as an ideal spokesman for a new Republican brand; but it's unclear whether he'll stay in Washington long enough to help build it. The state lawmaker who served two short terms in Boise is ambitious and famously impatient. Labrador has been so vexed by Capitol Hill's plodding pace that his close friends, who playfully call him "The Governor," were convinced last year that he would head back to Idaho and run for the governor's mansion.
Labrador stuck around — in part, he said, to continue working toward a solution on immigration reform. He now says he doesn't trust President Obama to enforce any laws Congress passes, and therefore doesn't want to see any immigration measures considered this year. Republican leadership seems to agree; no significant action on immigration is expected in 2014.
With his signature issue temporarily sidelined, and a newly assembled legion of influential conservative admirers in his corner, Labrador has time and support to plot his next move. The regularly scheduled leadership elections will be held in November, and while he swears he won't challenge Boehner for the speakership, Labrador knows that last week's loss may position him for victories in the future.
"This is a building block for something to come," Labrador said. "I can't tell you what 'something to come' is."