Rep. Raul Labrador, a fiery conservative lawmaker from Idaho, will challenge House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy in next Thursday's special election to replace Eric Cantor as majority leader, according to Republican sources.
"I want a House Leadership team that reflects the best of our conference," Labrador said in a statement provided to National Journal. He later added: "I am running for Majority Leader because I want to help create a vision of growth and opportunity for everyone and start getting to work for the American people."
A sophomore representative from a heavily Republican district, Labrador's election would dramatically alter the dynamic atop the House GOP. The former immigration attorney is Hispanic and bilingual, and would add diversity to an all-white leadership team. Labrador is also a member of the enormous 2010 class, the members of which pushed the GOP into the majority—but have felt largely unrepresented since.
"I was stunned when Eric Cantor lost his primary election earlier this week," Labrador said. "Eric is a good friend and I have tremendous respect for him. But the message from Tuesday is clear—Americans are looking for a change in the status quo."
Labrador, however, enters the race as a decided underdog, as McCarthy and his seasoned vote-counting operation have been working around the clock since Wednesday securing commitments from members of the House GOP.
It's unclear, in fact, whether Labrador actually thinks he can win. As he pondered the race on Thursday evening, conservatives who know Labrador speculated that his entrance would be less about beating McCarthy and more about proving a point. The Idaho Republican frequently criticizes the GOP leadership team—dominated by members from blue and purple states—for not representing the geographical or ideological composition of the conference. With a powerful leadership spot now open, Labrador couldn't bear the idea of McCarthy moving up uncontested.
"He thinks somebody needs to step up and at least give conservatives a choice," said a well-connected Washington Republican who knows Labrador well.
With none of the favored conservative candidates jumping in—Reps. Jeb Hensarling, Jim Jordan and Tom Price all passed on the leader's race—and Rep. Pete Sessions abruptly dropping his challenge to McCarthy on Thursday, the vacuum was too tempting for Labrador to resist.
One GOP lawmaker who is close with Labrador said the Idaho Republican "can't stand" McCarthy, and was angered at the notion of the majority whip earning a promotion by acclimation. Still, the Republican member, who asked not to be identified, said Labrador harbors no illusions that a victory is possible next Thursday.
"Raul isn't running to win. Raul is running to prove a point," the member said.
Still, conservative activists and outside groups who spent Thursday bemoaning their lack of a candidate were re-energized by the prospect of Labrador's candidacy—and won't let him go down without a fight. The tea party-allied group FreedomWorks launched a campaign for Labrador Friday morning—before his decision was even finalized—and urged activists to call their representatives on his behalf.
"Americans deserve a choice in leadership, and Republicans should have learned by now that 'the next guy in line' isn't entitled to the next rung on the ladder," said FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe. "Raul Labrador is the perfect leadership choice for constitutional conservatives who are ready to shake things up in Congress. He has an authentic commitment to rejecting special interests, and defending limited government."
But Labrador may not benefit much from the support of the powerful outside groups. Thursday's special election is secret-ballot, depriving the groups of key-voting the contest in an attempt to hold members accountable for their choice of leadership.
Labrador owes much of his celebrity to immigration, his signature issue, on which he occupies a tricky middle ground between the anti-amnesty wing of his party and those pushing for a comprehensive reform package. Labrador is comfortable with the idea of providing legal status to some undocumented immigrants, and perhaps even citizenship—but only after a muscular set of "triggers" are in place to ensure the border is secured and internal enforcement measures are in place. That way, Labrador has said, voters know "we won't have to deal with this issue again."
Originally part of a bipartisan House group working to craft an immigration package, Labrador dropped out after the members could not reconcile differing views over health care coverage for current illegal immigrants.
That willingness to stand for principle—even when it makes him an enemy of powerful lawmakers in his own party—is what immediately endeared Labrador to leading conservatives in the House. "He knows what he believes, and he came here and stood firmly for it," Rep. Jim Jordan, a leader of the GOP's right flank, said of Labrador last year. "That carries a lot of respect."
Labrador has never run for a leadership position before, but he did receive a single vote in 2013 for speaker of the House—from his close friend, Rep. Justin Amash.
Amash immediately took to Twitter following Labrador's announcement, and urged followers to keep track of who Republican representatives will vote for in the election.