What Raul Labrador Won by Losing

The young conservative lost his bid for leadership but he gained the kind of influence that can turn profits in the future.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) (3rd L) talks to, clockwise from lower left, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) prior to a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee March 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'The Release of Criminal Detainees by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): Policy or Politics?' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Tim Alberta
June 25, 2014, 6:30 p.m.

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.”

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