Rep. Raul Labrador, a sophomore Republican from Idaho, has distinguished himself as an outspoken conservative fond of criticizing his party’s leadership for being, among other things, “afraid.” But now that he is running for House majority leader, Labrador’s tone is decidedly more amiable; his emphasis is on uniting the GOP around common principles and making sure every member’s voice is heard. The special election to replace Eric Cantor as majority leader will be held Thursday, and Labrador is considered a long-shot to defeat Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
Labrador spoke Monday with National Journal about the internal campaign, Republican infighting, and his path to victory. Edited excerpts follow.
What is your relationship like with Kevin McCarthy?
It’s actually really good. We had a period where we had a rough patch, and we actually went out and had dessert together and we talked, and I think it’s been really good since then.
What was the source of that rough patch?
You know, it’s between us.
How long ago was it?
It’s been a while, but I think — there’s no personal animus between us.
Do you think he deserves a promotion to majority leader, based on his performance as majority whip?
I don’t think anybody in this conference deserves anything. I think you have to earn it. Now, it’s up to the members of the House to decide if he has earned it.
Have you spoken with McCarthy since you declared your candidacy on Friday?
Absolutely. I’ve spoken to the three top leaders.
And how would you describe your communication with them?
Very positive. It’s been nothing but gracious — from me and from them.
We’ve talked before about how the Republican Party is fractured. Do you think this internal campaign will only further exacerbate that divide?
I don’t at all. Because I think Kevin has been nothing but a gentleman to me, and I’m going to be nothing but a gentleman to him.
What are you telling your colleagues to sell them on your candidacy?
There’s two things — internal and external. Internally we need to change the way we run the floor; we need to keep a pledge to our conference “¦ that we’re going to have bills out there for 72 hours [before they’re voted on]. I think we need to let the committees work their will; if somebody’s idea gets out of committee, we need to hear those ideas on the House floor, even if they go down. There’s nothing wrong with bills not passing; it’s one of the things I loved most about being in a state legislature. The most senior member has the same rights as the least senior member to have their ideas actually heard. And we don’t do that here. Eighty percent of the members of this House feel like they’re irrelevant. I want every member to feel like they contribute to the House of Representatives. So that’s my internal message.
What about external?
The American people no longer understand what Republicans stand for. We need to have a vision and passion for our ideas; we need to let them know the four, five, six things we would do if we had a Senate in Republican hands. If we can’t do that, we’re not going to win the Senate. And if we don’t win the Senate, we’re not going to win the White House. And we have not been successful in driving that message to the American people — and I don’t think there’s anybody better than me to do that.
Is that message resonating?
Absolutely. There are even people who tell me, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m voting for Kevin — but I want that, that’s exactly what I want, I agree with you 100 percent.”
Have you successfully convinced any of those members to switch sides?
I can’t tell you, and I’m not going to play the numbers game.
Can you win this race?
I am confident that I can win it, but I have to earn it.
How do you do that?
I just need to keep calling people — and stop talking to you.
When you got into the race, a few of your friends told me this was more about you proving a point — and standing up for the House conservatives — than it was about winning. Is that true?
No, no. I absolutely believe that we have a chance to win. The problem is that everyone here waits until the time is right — until they know they can win, and they know victory is assured. That’s not leadership. Leadership is standing up against all odds and realizing that you’re going to have a hard fight but you’re going to do everything you can to get through it.
So what does your path to victory look like?
I’m just calling the members and giving them the same message I’ve given you, and explaining to them why I’m going to make them feel like valued members of the House of Representatives, no matter how long they have been here and what their title is.
But what does your winning coalition look like? How do you piece together enough votes to beat Kevin McCarthy?
What you do is talk to the conservatives who are disaffected. But if you talk to individual members from the Northeast, they don’t feel like their voices are being heard. You let people know that there are things that bring us together; that there are reasons we are all Republicans. There are specific things we all agree on, and those are the things we need to be working on so we can actually get together as a party.
What about your membership in the enormous class of 2010? Do you leverage that?
Absolutely. I think the class of 2010 wants to be represented. We are the majority-makers, and we should be well-represented in leadership.
Do you have an ace up your sleeve that we don’t know about?
I just have to reach out and explain to members how it’s important for us to send a message. And the greatest thing about this is that we can send a message — we’ve heard from everybody how they’re sick of the leadership. Well, take this opportunity to actually send a message to leadership. You’re not unseating John Boehner, you’re actually not even getting rid of Kevin McCarthy — he remains the whip. But we need somebody new at the table with fresh ideas and a new outlook.
Eric Cantor’s primary challenger, David Brat, was also called a long-shot. His victory put you in this position. Do you take any comfort in that?
I’m not going to talk about Eric, but I was a long-shot in my race for Congress. I’ve been a long-shot my entire political career and in everything that I’ve done. So I feel pretty good about my chances.